For those of you who don’t attend synagogue on a regular basis it can be extremely daunting when you walk inside. On whichever Shabbat or holiday you decide (or are compelled) to go, you know when you walk in you will look, feel and be regarded as an outcast. Well, by reading the rest of this, that can all change (I am not guaranteeing anyone anything). This guide works for a majority of synagogues as well, across dominations, sizes and locations (other than the more strict ones in Israel and less strict ones in America).
1. Attire- What you wear is vital because it will be the first thing people notice when you walk through the door. For men, do not overdress with something like a tuxedo or another way fancy outfit. Nice slacks and a button down shirt (preferably white) and your choice of whether to wear a suit jacket (depending on what kind of synagogue you go to) is all you need. For women it is best to wear a skirt that is not too short or too long (people will assume you are super religious if you wear a long skirt to your shoes and something very negative if you wear a short skirt). Also, a nice long sleeve shirt is good. Whether to cover your hair or not and how also depends on the type of synagogue you are going to. For men it is preferable to bring and wear your own yarmulke into synagogue, for more traditional synagogues go with a black velvet one while others it is safe to go with a knitted one that doesn’t draw too much attention. Regarding a tallis (or tallit), it is best to not bring your own and use one of the synagogues.
2. Arrival & Time- What time you arrive at synagogue also tells a lot about you. If you are at the point you are driving to synagogue it is preferable to park as far away as you can. No matter how observant you are, it is always a little awkward when people see you coming out of your car to synagogue on Shabbat and holidays. The time you arrive at synagogue will also give people a reason to judge you. If you arrive at synagogue exactly on time people will think you are either very religious and want to pray from the beginning of the service, or maybe they will think you are not even Jewish. That’s where the first step comes in handy and if you are dressed as suggested that will take away people thinking you are not Jewish. You also do not want to arrive super late because that will make it look like you are at synagogue just for the food afterwards (if there is food afterwards) or that you are just showing up because you feel obligated and do not really want to be there. Arriving from ten minutes after services start to an hour or so after is perfectly fine. Just make sure you know when services start and that they will start on time.
3. Where to sit- Many synagogues have seats that are reserved or have seats that people identify as theirs, so regardless of where you sit ask someone near you beforehand if you are taking anyones usual seat. Also avoid sitting in the first or the last row cause it might lead to uncomfortably or not being sure what to do at certain points during the service.
4. Pay Attention to Surroundings- Depending on your knowledge of Hebrew and of whatever service you are in, try to keep pace and be aware of what is going on around you. It is likely that someone will be announcing what page in the siddur the congregation is on so keep listening to stay with the crowd. Also, be aware of when the entire congregation is standing up or sitting down and do it with them. Make sure it is not just a couple people doing so though or you might end up embarrassing yourself.
5. Go with the flow- Even regular synagogue attendees will feel uncomfortable when they first arrive to a new synagogue. Just pay attention to what’s happening around you, what everyone is doing, whether it is acceptable to talk or not, where the restrooms are (if you might need to use them at some point) and go with the flow. Hopefully, you will end up having a good time and feeling good that you came for whatever reason it was.
Yes, I know almost everything included in this ‘guide’ is based on the fact that your fellow Jews are judging you and has nothing to do with your relationship with Hashem. However, the point is to make you feel comfortable going to synagogue and hopefully you will want to attend more often. I am not guaranteeing any of this helps. It is all based on my personal observations from attending many different synagogues of all sizes, sects and locations.