by Samuel D. Gruber
I recently finished compiling Saving American Synagogues: Materials for a Preservation Manual (Part I) a 170 pp handbook and guide to the protection and historic preservation of older American synagogues. The manual is intended for two main types of audiences - congregations that are stewards of, and are sometimes just coping with an older building; and preservationists frequently engaged in the documentation, repair and preservation of synagogues. The work on the manual was funded by a grant from the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation. I am now discussing with colleagues how best to present this material - in print, on-line, etc [funders & publishers welcome to contact me directly].
This is not a manual that needs to be read from start to finish. It consists of dozens a short sections of specific topics. Some of these still need to be tested, many can stand alone. Many of these sections will soon be posted on the ISJM website.
For the benefit of the many readers of this blog are are avid synagogues visitors - or who would like to be - I post the following small section (pp 60-62)- a simple guide to help those unfamiliar with a particular place. This manual is geared to American congregations and synagogues, but much of the materials carries over to synagogues worldwide. It is based on my own experiences, and on conversations with many others.
I welcome your own pieces of advice, or your comments on these! - SDG
Simple Dos and Don’ts When Visiting a Synagogue
extracted from Saving American Synagogues: Materials for a Preservation Manual (Part I) by Samuel D. Gruber
1.Feel free to visit a synagogue for services, but be prepared to follow local custom. Synagogue congregations (and clergy) are not secretive, but they may be parochial.
2.If you want observe a service (as opposed to participate in it), you are usually welcome, but if a stranger it is best to make arrangement ahead of time.
3.Entrance to synagogues these days is often not through what appears to be the front door, even for services of Sabbath and holidays. For practical and security reasons entrance may be through a side, back or service entrance. Just because the main (ceremonial) door is closed, don’t assume the building is closed. Many synagogues also maintain a full-time or part-time custodian (shammas) on the premise. Other synagogues may have schools or offices in adjacent buildings or building wings.
4.These days synagogues are very conscious about security. Do not be offended if you are subjected to various security measures. To minimize this, it is always best to call ahead if visiting a synagogue at any time other than for services.
5.Even if a building is open, it is best to find someone to introduce yourself to and to inform about why you are visiting. Quite likely, you’ll end up with a personal guided tour.
6.If a stranger to a synagogue, it always helps to have a printed business or visiting card that you can leave. In some places, especially in Manhattan, it may be necessary to show a photo ID (for security).
7.All synagogues have different norms for dress, and these vary by season and time of week. To be safe, it is best to always dress respectfully, as if for work, church or any official meeting, when visiting a synagogue for the first time. Even for a casual visit, men should wear long pants, and a button down or polo-type shirt. For women, dresses, skirts, or work-style slacks are best. Best to have sleeves and higher necklines. If you have previously arranged to look at a building top to bottom – roof to basement – then more casual clothes are fine.
8.If you are in an Orthodox, Conservative or Reconstructionist synagogue and are a Jewish man, it is expected that you will wear a kippah (yarmulke), at least in the sanctuary, whether for services or not. Kippot are usually available and in view, if not just ask. Or wear a baseball cap or other hat.
9.If you are in an Orthodox, Conservative or Reconstructionist synagogue and not a Jewish man, wearing a kippah (yarmulke) or other head covering is optional, but can be sign of respect. When in doubt wear a baseball cap or other hat.
10.In a Reform synagogue kippot are always optional, for Jews and non-Jews
11.If you visit an Orthodox synagogue on the Sabbath do not bring a camera or tape recorder or propose any sort of work (photos, interviews, etc.) or use of money unless expressly invited to do so beforehand. Be sure your cell phone is turned off.
12.When Orthodox services are in progress, you can be an observer, and if Jewish, participant. Women will have to sit with women, men with men.
13.When Conservative or Reform services are in progress, you should feel free to follow along in the prayer book, which includes lots of English and has much that is universalist in its language and message.
14.Jews like music. Feel free to sing along to prayers and songs – and to even chant or hum the melody of you do not know the words. Many prayer books now include transliteration of Hebrew prayers and songs so that even those illiterate in Hebrew can join in.
15.Generally, Jews and especially rabbis will be happy to explain aspects of their worship or behavior when asked out of genuine interest. This is true in the more liberal movements, but also true of some Orthodox, especially Chabad Lubavitch.
Again, the visitor should respect local custom and not ask questions during services.
16.Assume that Reform and Conservative congregations will be mostly familiar with popular culture reference points, and shared American experience. More Orthodox congregations and especially some Hasidic groups are likely to be more isolated. Still, even the most Orthodox Jews are not Luddites, they may be well-tuned to new technologies as well as current events.
17.When in a synagogue when there are no services feel free to walk and look around, and to ask any question that comes to mind about what you see. But be careful, don’t assume answers about history, art, architecture will be accurate – even when given with great sincerity.
18.Do not open the Ark on your own. It may be considered disrespectful, and the Ark may also be alarmed to prevent theft of precious Torah scrolls. If you are being shown the synagogue, however, do not hesitate to ask for the Ark to be opened so you can see any interior decoration, and also the decorations of the Torah scrolls.
19.Most congregations will allow photos of their sanctuaries, but it is always best to ask first. Especially ask about photos of the open Ark. If one person refuses to allow photos, try explaining your purpose to someone higher up – either the rabbi or an administrator. You can also offer copies of the photos for use by the synagogue – online or otherwise. Some synagogues refuse photos for security reasons, but most because they are embarrassed if something is messy or needs repair.
20.Many synagogues have tables or racks with copies of announcements and bulletins. Feel free to look at these, and take copies with you. If you have a strong interest in a building, you should ask if there are other publications. Many congregations have old copies of brochures, program and publications that give information. Larger congregations sometimes have libraries where copies of historical materials are kept for consultation. Many synagogues also have a member who is an official or unofficial congregation historian.
21.Feel free to share your historical, art, architectural, technical or other knowledge and information with the synagogue clergy and staff.
22.Do not call the synagogue a church; do not call the Ark (Aron-ha-Kodesh) an altar.
23.Do not take or make cell phone calls while in the sanctuary (even if you see the shammas doing so)
24.Women, be aware that some Orthodox men (especially rabbis) will not shake a woman’s hand. To avoid embarrassment, let the rabbi or Orthodox attendant make the first move.