First Time Service Guide
Rodef Shalom Saturday Morning Service
by STACEY SCARAVELLI, Past Board Member, and RABBI BERNARD GERSON
The following very basic information may help you navigate and feel more comfortable at your first few synagogue services. You will learn the most by observing and listening to the rabbi and congregation. Don't hesitate to ask questions – the congregation warmly welcomes newcomers and if you make a mistake, consider it a learning experience.
What should I wear ? The dress code is approximately "business casual." No jeans or shorts. Men should be comfortable in basic office attire. Ties are optional. For women, skirts should be knee length or longer. In general you shouldn't show excessive skin, and while some women go sleeveless in the heat of summer, these tops are still fairly conservative. A fair amount of the 2.5-hour service is spent standing, so wear comfortable shoes. Occasionally the Rodef sanctuary gets a little chilly and you may want to bring a light sweater. All men are required to wear a yarmulke (kippah kee-PAH in Hebrew) in the synagogue and throughout the service as a sign of respect and humility. Women may wear them if they wish. There is a basket containing both kippot (kee-POHT, plural) and lace hair coverings as well as bobby pins next to the doors into the main sanctuary. Help yourself. Using the hair pins will help you focus on the service and not on the feeling that your hat is constantly falling off. There are fringed shawls called tallit (tah-LEET) also hanging outside the doors for guests. You must be Jewish to wear one of these.
What time should I arrive? Saturday Shabbat services begin at 9:30 am, but you are most welcome to join a small group of members in the Social Hall for coffee and conversation between 9:00-9:30. The first part of the service is a warming up period of blessings and psalms. You are welcome and encouraged to attend the entire service but "Jewish Standard Time" assures that the congregation members arrive at their personal staggered times before the 10:15 am Torah service. The nice part about coming early is that you will have some time for quiet reflection, to look through the books, and to become familiar with the inside of our beautiful sanctuary. If, on the other hand, you prefer to come later, you will not interrupt. There is one exception to this general rule – there are certain sacred times during the service intended for silent prayer. During this period the sanctuary doors will be closed and no one will be allowed to enter or leave until the prayer ends. You will notice people waiting in the lobby until the ushers open the doors and let people know when it is alright to go in and sit down.
Greetings. The standard Saturday morning greeting is "Shabbat Shalom" (Sabbath peace) or "Good Shabbos."
What to do if someone offers you an aliyah. It is customary in many synagogues to offer the honor of participating in the service by either opening the ark, carrying the Torah or chanting the blessings before and after the Torah reading to guests. You may be approached by someone and asked if you would like an aliyah (ah-LEE-ah). If you are not Jewish but either visiting us or considering conversion, then thank them politely, and simply say that you're not Jewish. That will eliminate any confusion. If you are a Jew who is beyond that age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and are comfortable accepting an honor, please read carefully the detailed instructions on the sheet presented to you and proceed to the bimah at the proper time.
Which book do I read ? There are two books used during most services: a blue prayer book called Siddur Sim Shalom, and much larger maroon book which contains the Bible readings. Both books are read from right to left. Although about 90% of a Conservative synagogue service is in Hebrew, don't worry about getting lost. In truth, at least some of the people standing next to you are lost, too. It takes time to learn both the service and to read Hebrew. Feel free to wander through the prayer book and experience the tone and beauty of the prayers. Listen to the chanted melodies. The rabbi or cantor will occasionally call out page numbers, so although much of Sim Shalom is not transliterated (although some important prayers are), you should be able to occasionally find where we are in the book.
Where's everybody going ? About half way through the service we will take the Torah out of the Ark, bring it to the front of the bimah (BEE-mah, altar), chant a short prayer, and begin to walk down the stairs. People will start moving out to the edge of the pews and into the aisles. As the procession moves through the sanctuary, people will reach out and touch the velvet scroll covering with either the edge of their book or the fringes of their tallit and then kiss it as a sign of love and reverence for the Torah. You are also welcome to do this, but if you are uncomfortable, feel free to let the procession pass you by. Just be aware that there may be people behind you who would like to come forward. This procession is repeated twice, once for each side of the sanctuary. It is customary to always face the Torah as it moves around the room.
Breaks. If Mother Nature calls or you feel the need to stretch during some part of the service it is perfectly fine for you to excuse yourself and leave the sanctuary. Bathrooms are located to the right, down the hallway toward the synagogue offices. Leave your prayer books at your seat. As a reminder, you will not be allowed to leave or reenter the sanctuary during the two periods of silent prayer (called the Amidah, ah-MEE-dah), so plan ahead. The first one will occur approximately around 10am and the second around 11:30 am and will last about 10 minutes. It is also considered impolite to leave while someone is speaking from the bimah, such as during the sermon. Otherwise, feel free to come and go as you please.
Other parts of the service which may seem confusing. You may notice different times during the service when some people sit and some people stand. Until you understand the differences between these times, you should opt to sit.
Occasionally a couple will have the honor of blessing the Torah just prior to getting married. On these days it is customary to throw sweet candies at them and these will be passed in a basket just before they give their blessing. It will be obvious when it's time to throw. (Just try not to hit the person sitting in front of you.)
What not to do. Writing and taking photographs fall under the category of "work" and thus are prohibited on Shabbat. The use of electronic equipment and cell phones is not allowed except in the case of an emergency – please make sure they are turned off or set to silent. The synagogue and Rodef grounds are always smoke-free.
After the service. A sign that we have reached the end of the service is when the mourners present recite the Kaddish prayer, followed by the appearance of our younger children on the steps of the bimah during one final song. It will most likely be between 11:45-12:00, depending on the day. Then everyone will move to the Social Hall behind the sanctuary for a light lunch. You are very welcome to join in and you are encouraged to talk to congregants and get to know some of the people at Rodef Shalom.