I am getting serious about my boyfriend (who is not Jewish) and I want him to understand what’s important to me about being Jewish. I’m thinking that this year I should take him with me to High Holy Day services. Chabad has free services and I was always treated kindly by the Chabad rabbi on my college campus, so I thought about going there. I was raised Reform; do you think I’ll be able to follow the traditional service and explain it to my boyfriend?
Dear Wondering: I appreciate your growing awareness that your boyfriend deserves to know more about what Judaism is and especially what it means to you. However, starting with the High Holy Day services is really pushing him into the deep end of the pool. I don’t recommend it.
In the 20-plus years I’ve been working with interfaith couples, I’ve seen exactly two people, both practicing Christians, who liked High Holy Day services. Two!
If you have grown up going to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, you are acclimated to the length of the service, the language and the atmosphere. But for your boyfriend it is utterly unknown and probably uncomfortable. The liturgy is unique; so is the music. The intention is to jolt Jews into a heightened state of awareness. Additionally, the reference to sins is heard by most Jews as “missed the mark,” but to most people raised in American culture, it can sound like the precursor to a quick trip to hell.
I suggest you take your boyfriend to a regular Shabbat service. At this time of year, many synagogues have outdoor services or services that include a picnic dinner or lots of music. Since you were raised Reform, I suggest you help him get familiar with a Reform environment. That is going to be most comfortable for you, and your comfort level will significantly influence his.
I would not recommend a Chabad or Orthodox service as his first experience because, for one, you would be sitting on opposite sides of the mechitza, which would preclude you from sharing a prayerbook and explaining things. Additionally, there are parts of a traditional Shabbat service that the Reform movement has deleted, so you too would be a bit confused.
I understand the concern about the cost of High Holy Day tickets, and I have a few suggestions. Rosh Hashanah starts the evening of Oct. 2. A couple of weeks before the holidays, this newspaper will print a long list of free services in the area (last year’s list at http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/75582 could give you a lead). Additionally, look at websites of Reform synagogues near you; many have lower prices for students, military and young adults. Or feel free to call me at (510) 845-6420 ext. 11; I can help you find options near you.
I also want to reflect on this idea you’ve formed: wanting your boyfriend to understand what is important to you about being a Jew. This is very important and he deserves to know. And you are doing the right thing by making this effort.
I want to you to consider the best way to go about assisting him. First, it is best if you and he learn together. Don’t make this a job for him with you as boss. Look for a basic Judaism class that you could attend together. Since most adult Jews haven’t studied Judaism since their teens, you’ll find yourself able to take in more of the details and the subtleties of Jewish history, practice and theology.
Many synagogues offer basic courses, and certainly Lehrhaus Judaica offers classes throughout the Bay Area, including an online option if you are located far afield.
Should you take him to services? Yes! But go easy. Find a service that is a bit shorter and has a lot of music. And, if you can, go with friends. Also, prepare a Shabbat dinner at home for him. Explain the elements of Shabbat at home. Demonstrate how Judaism is, in fact, a home-based religion. It is likely that the Jewish activities you will want him to do with you are home-based: Shabbat, Hanukkah, Passover. Have fun and be prepared to do this together.