So I decided this week that it was about time I tried going to Shabbat services. I searched for the nearest Conservative synagogue, found the address on Google Maps, and set off early this morning.
I’m a pretty good walker. I’m not fast or athletic in any way, but I have a lot of stamina and I like to take long, meandering walks for hours. But in the sun it was rough, and that is my own fault for not thinking ahead and getting sunscreen. It’s a beautiful walk, though, crossing the Experimental Farm and later through a park, down a flight of metal stairs installed on the side of a steep wooded hill. And then a few streets of auto glass shops, because you can’t win them all. Like a genius, I didn’t write down Google’s directions so I got lost at one point and had to stop in at a Canadian Tire to look at their maps.
Anyway, I was triumphant and got there in time. My dad was always mortified if we didn’t make it exactly ten minutes early to church (preferably fifteen) and would fuss about the indignity of walking in on the procession, so that’s what I tried to do. Instead I found that there was no big hurry, and the small group was still waiting for a minyan. They have no rabbi of their own at the moment (Catholics can relate!) but they led the services themselves, playing it by ear (Catholics cannot relate). Everyone was very chill and friendly, especially when I said I wasn’t Jewish and had never done this before, but was interested in converting. They got me a Chumash and siddur, explained what the little squares mean in the Hebrew text, pointed out that we were using the version that included the matriarchs in the prayers, and generally made sure that I was able to follow along.
I was surprised by how much (spoken) Hebrew I knew. I only recently learned the aleph-bet and am pretty slow picking my way through it, but during the prayers and Torah and Haftorah I could follow where we were in the English translation based on vocabulary words that I recognised. Mainly I got confused during prayers that were sung to a melody that everyone else knew but I didn’t, but when those cropped up I just waited, looking at the English text or trying to soak up the melody for next time. I was also thrown by the Torah scroll being carried through the congregation–I could see how the men were venerating it with the tzitzyot, but did the women do something different? Was I allowed to touch it as a non-Jew? I didn’t know, so I defaulted to Catholic liturgical training when faced with a new and confusing ritual: do nothing and stand aside to let other people in the row do their thing.
Of course some of the prayers were in English, and I was even asked to read one, which was awesome. (It was this one, roughly, adapted for Canadian use in our siddur.) The dvar Torah given by one of the congregation was far more erudite than I’m used to from Catholic homilies–my family were always tough critics, and I learned to dread sermons read word for word at the pulpit. This guy spoke from notes but they were actually necessary, since he was citing sources and making a scholarly argument. The other difference I noticed is that it was an argument about liturgy and history, rather than an exhortation to feeling a certain way. (I get that a dvar and a sermon aren’t the same thing, I’m just comparing because they occupy a similar sort of place in the liturgies.) My talks with the American Woman about Mormonism have made me more sensitive to religious activities that try to whip up and manipulate the emotions, and the services here were very much not about that. There were opportunities to focus in on your own feelings, particularly during the silent parts, but no pressure to feel a certain way or to display outward signs of “spiritual feelings”. This is exactly what I want.
I didn’t feel too out of place. All the other women wore kippot and most wore tallitot, but no one drew attention to the fact that I wasn’t. Everyone introduced themselves or introduced me around to other people, made conversation and invited me for kiddush afterwards. I was awkward and nervous, like I usually am with new people, but it was a pretty forgiving environment. (I failed to politely escape taking some gefilte fish, even though I cannot deal with that stuff cold. “Oh, no thanks, not for me.” “No, HAVE SOME.” So I did.) A very motherly rebbetzin said I was brave to come and was surprised that I was trying to keep kosher already, which, my heart grew three sizes that day. It was really, really great to have encouragement. She introduced me to her husband, who’s led conversion classes before, and he was also super supportive and suggested I get in touch with him. Nobody tried to discourage me three times or anything.
In short, OMG WHY DID I NOT TRY THIS SOONER.