Forgive Us Our Trespasses
Only in Israel have we run into the practice of 'reserved seating' in the shuls. Maybe there are assigned seats in other places we haven't been to, but in California and New York and on visits to other states, we have been welcomed and allowed to sit where we please....
In Jerusalem, we have been to a number of synagogues, doing what some describe as 'shul-hopping.' I thought for a while we might have a 'mixed marriage' because I was happier at the local Carlbach/Chabad-style minyan up the street in Talpiot, but my husband and son liked another shul down on Asher. My son knows a couple of kids from his high school who go there, so despite my misgivings, we continued to go to that synagogue more than others.
What were my misgivings? Well, as nice and big as the synagogue is, it is about as friendly and welcoming as an office building. Folks file in, take their seats, talk to the people they know and ignore everyone else (including newcomers who don't know anyone). I thought this was a failing of the women's side, but my husband informed me today that that has been the case in the men's section as well.
So today, my husband and son are going to the Asher street synagogue again in large part because Josh is looking forward to seeing his two friends from school. Now, we have enough 'shul etiquette' to not push our way forward into the seats closest to the bima--after all, we ARE newcomers. The guys get there, as usual, around 8:30 am and sit in the same seats they've sat in for weeks (with a couple of absences to humor my desire to visit other minyans). These seats are in the 'back' of the synagogue and as far as we know, not particularly desireable seats. Josh actually gets his tallit on, and Mike is starting to take his out, when a man comes up and tells yet another man to go 'over there' gesturing across the aisle. The man giving the directions asks Josh if this other man can walk through the aisle and my son and husband are happy to oblige, moving aside to let him pass. The man giving directions then tells MY guys to move also, gesturing dismissively to the side aisles. Mike isn't offended--he's aware that there is a Bar Mitzvah this morning and assumes this is a family member trying to secure seats for other family members. So he and Josh start to get their tallit bags and siddurs together to move when the man adds, "These are OUR seats, y'know."
That stopped my husband dead. He suddenly realized that he wasn't being asked to move to accomodate a bar mitzvah family (and who of the family wanted to sit in the rear of the synagogue anyway? I asked him later) but that this man was telling him to move because the seats my guys had sat in for the last several months were really "his seats." Mike and Josh were informed that they were, in effect, trespassing.
My husband, who is usually pretty genial, funny and easy going, saw red. Not only was this synagogue cold, unwelcoming and not one person had ever said "Welcome," or "Are you new in the area?" or even "Shabbat shalom," but now he was being told there was "reserved seating" of some kind and that he and Josh had inadvertantly trespassed on this man's seats.
"Reeeeeeaaaallly?" Mike drawled. He bent over, examining the seat. "And can you show me exactly where your name is on this seat? I must have missed it! I just didn't see it engraved on the chair!"
Did I tell you my husband has a black belt in sarcasm?
"Well, you know, I mean, about people's seats...." the other Jew stumbled, then sort of winked and nodded. "I mean, everybody knows....," he trailed off when Mike didn't appear terribly understanding. "Well, you can sit over there," he added, again gesturing dismissively towards the side seats.
"I don't think so," my husband replied coldly. "I don't daven in shuls where newcomers aren't welcome and the community uses a seating chart." He turned towards Josh and said, "C'mon, Josh, we're not welcome here. Let's go." They grabbed their stuff and walked out, the other Jew following behind protesting that he was sorry, he didn't mean it 'that way' and asking them to please come back.....
Too late. This is a well-to-do Baka synagogue with a critical mass of Jews who show up every Shabbat, for the Chaggim and for daily minyan.....yet it lacks a soul. We won't be going back there. We've never been made to feel welcome and today were made to feel unwelcome. We'll continue to search for a shul with soul, full of people who know what "Ahavat Yisrael" means and who truly welcome their brethren to the house of assembly for prayer.
Just proves a fancy building doesn't make a synagogue....