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Different, Yet the Same: Journey into an Unfamiliar House of Worship

When I was young, my family and I went to synagogue fairly regularly. I especially looked forward to the first Friday night of each month for "Family Services," which included special songs and events that actively engaged kids in Judaism. Holidays and milestones also summoned us to synagogue. I remember vividly, for example, the High Holidays of my youth when together as a family we would attend services, asking God to grant us atonement for our sins and to inscribe our loved ones in the Book of Life for the upcoming year. Indeed, the synagogue was for me a place to be with my family and, in the midst of my community, practice my religion.

Less than five miles away, every Sunday throughout the years of his childhood, John, his parents, two brothers, and three sisters went to church together. They sat in the pews, knelt before Jesus on the cross, and said the Our Father prayer side-by-side. As a family, they also went to church to share in milestone events, such as First Communions and Confirmations, and to observe holidays such as Easter and Christmas. Similar to what my synagogue meant to me, time spent in church taught John that his house of worship was a place for spending time with his family and for practicing the rituals of his religion with his community.

John and I are no longer little children experiencing our respective religions separately across town. In fact, we met and fell in love during high school, where at first we thought that our different religions would be a barrier to us getting married someday. Yet, through a lot of love and mutual respect, our relationship has endured, and we eventually married. With a foundation built on shared values that stress the importance of family, we have found many commonalities in our upbringings. However, while we have observed each other's holidays in our families' homes through the years, neither of us had regularly ventured into the other's house of worship.

For me, two events--John's niece's christening and his brother's Catholic wedding Mass--required my entrance into John's church as we neared our wedding date. In a house of worship unfamiliar to me, I learned that being the only Jew at a church could be a somewhat awkward experience. While of course I could relate to the happiness that the family felt at these milestone events, I found myself feeling out of place as the only person who was seated in the pews while everyone else was kneeling and then again when it seemed as if everyone in the congregation but me walked up to the altar to receive communion. I also felt painfully uncomfortable with the church's décor. I had not anticipated, for example, the lifelike figure of Jesus Christ, with blood trickling from his torso, hanging on a large cross above the altar.

With these initial feelings of unease, I began to wonder if I would find an element of the Catholic service that would resonate with me. Then, during a component of the Catholic wedding Mass, everyone in the congregation began turning to his or her neighbor to express wishes of goodwill and peace. I quickly understood the beauty of this custom, during which those in attendance voiced kindness and compassion to others. Recognizing that this custom represented common values that I as a Jew shared with those inside the church, I happily returned wishes of goodwill and peace to those congregants next to me.

Soon after my visits to John's church, John had his first experience at my synagogue. During the year of our engagement, I wanted to have him share the High Holidays with my family and me, and we therefore invited him to join us for Kol Nidre services--a most solemn but important evening on the Jewish calendar. Of course, as the evening approached, I wondered how John would feel coming to our synagogue for the first time. While I hoped that he would be able to find an element of the Jewish service that would resonate with him, I worried that he would feel like a stranger as I had felt during my first experiences in a church. Further, would he struggle to understand the structure of the service? Most certainly, he would not understand the Hebrew components, but would he also struggle to relate to those in English? And, how would members of the congregation relate to him--would they see him as an outsider, or welcome him into the congregation as a supporter of our religion? What were the rules, anyway? Should he wear a tallis (prayer shawl)? A yarmulke (skull cap)? To complicate matters, not even my parents knew how to advise John on what would be appropriate.

When my family, John, and I arrived at the synagogue on that Kol Nidre evening, we approached the bin of yarmulkes and racks with prayer shawls set outside of the entrance to the sanctuary. After some discussion, we agreed that it would be appropriate for him to wear a yarmulke out of respect, but that it would not be appropriate for him to wear a tallis, which our synagogue requires of Jewish men. This meant, of course, that John was one of the few men in the synagogue that night without a prayer shawl wrapped around his shoulders, and he felt rather conspicuous as an outsider. In addition to this, he found the service difficult to follow. To John, who had no previous knowledge of how the service should flow, it appeared that the congregants talked amongst themselves at various intervals in the service when he had expected the service to be more formally structured, as he was used to in his church.

Despite these differences and feelings of unfamiliarity, John was still able to find components of the service that he could relate to. The rabbi's sermon, which challenged congregants to refrain from saying ill words about others in the coming year, contained universal values and examples that John could certainly understand and empathize with. In addition, the repentance and renewal themes resonated with him and allowed him time to reflect inwardly about his past and his future.

And so, our journey into each other's houses of worship yielded an important lesson for us both--a lesson that will undoubtedly resurface as we continue our journey together. While differences between our respective religions are blatantly evident and often overwhelming, glorious similarities in our religions also exist. Indeed, as we were raised across town in our separate houses of worship, we each learned the important messages of goodwill, kindness, reflection, and family harmony; and these are the messages we bring to the house we have created as husband and wife.

Aramaic for "all vows," the opening words and name of the first prayer that begins the evening service on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre has come to refer to the name of the evening service itself. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Yiddish for "skullcap," also known in Hebrew as a "kippah," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Melissa Feldman

Melissa Feldman is a senior business consultant and information technology project manager in New York City where she also attends New York University's Stern School of Business in pursuit of her Master's of Business Administration Degree. Melissa, a feature columnist for the New York University Stern Opportunity (the student newspaper of the Stern School), resides in Manhattan with her husband, John Desjardins.

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