Experiencing Alien Cultures

“I need to experience an alien culture by next week,” a friend of mine said gloomily. We were both graduate students in a small midwestern town at the time. He was taking a course intended to improve his cultural sensitivity and make him a better teacher. To pass this class, he needed to find a place where he would feel totally confused and alien, like a fish out of water. The small Midwestern town did not offer much in the way of exotic and alienating experience, or at least he thought it didn’t. After all, he had spent two years in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“You want to feel confused?” I said. “No problem. Meet me at 6:00. Alienation guaranteed.” I took him to a religious service held almost entirely in a foreign language. Everyone in the room seemed to know what to do, except him. People sat, stood, swayed, sang and prayed silently. Sometimes pages were announced, sometimes not. He flipped through the prayer book totally lost.

It was a perfectly ordinary Friday night synagogue service.

I thought about my friend’s first visit to a synagogue this Yom Kippur, as I watched the congregation swell to many times its normal size. The High Holidays are the only time that many Jews enter a synagogue. That means that a certain portion of the congregation is in much the same position at my friend, unfamiliar with the service. Other people know the service very well and are seeking comfort in its familiarity. Welcoming and respecting both kinds of people, with their very different needs, is one of the great challenges of leading High Holiday services.

There are a few simple steps that can help make the service more accessible to people with various levels of Jewish knowledge. The rabbi may begin the service by welcoming everyone, explicitly including those who are there for the first time or may be unfamiliar with the service. Ask people to take a minute to introduce themselves to the people sitting around them. It is easier to feel like part of a community if you are not sitting among total strangers. If congregational singing is a major part of the service, teach everyone a simple, wordless tune that will recur throughout. If Hebrew is a barrier to many people, it may be worth the one-time expense of transliterating the most important prayers and distributing them in a separate booklet. All of these steps make it easier for people to join in the service. Where they can join in the singing, they will feel secure. Where they feel secure, they just may come back. Perhaps even before the next Yom Kippur.

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