Judaism: Day 19 and 20 – Orthodox Shabbat (or why you need to work at religion)

The Kesher Israel Synagogue is located on the corner of 28th and N Street NW in the Georgetown neighborhood in Washington, DC. The building is a three-story brownstone that almost blends in with the surrounding homes; if it weren’t for the Star of David and the stained glass windows, you could easily confuse the synagogue for a very large house. Due to its architectural modesty, you would never guess that a number of Washington’s Jewish elite are members.

The Kesher Israel website advertises its prestige on its “Kesher History” page noting that Senator Joe Lieberman is a dutiful member and that the membership also includes “multiple current and previous elected officials, a significant number of Ambassadors, both to and from the United States, current and former Cabinet members, and several distinguished authors.” On Friday night, its members also included….me.

So far in my Judaism month, I’ve attended a Reform and a Conservative Shabbat service. The Reform service was very modern and included lots of English to help the attendees understand what the heck was going on. The Conservative service was super long and was 90% in Hebrew, but at least you could somewhat follow along in the prayer book and read the translation. This week, I wanted to see what an Orthodox service would be like.

The first thing I noticed was that the men and women were separated. The women were technically in the same room as the men, but in a cordoned off area. In the Conservative and Reform services I attended, the men and women sat together.

The other thing I noticed was that the participants spanned a wide age range. I thought it would be mostly an older crowd, but there were quite a few young people there. This surprised me as I figured younger people would not be attracted to “old-fashioned” traditions.  Perhaps this was due to the synagogue’s location in Georgetown; the neighborhood is popular for its shopping and bar scene. Or maybe certain types of young people prefer to be fully dedicated to their religion, rather than participate in a “watered down” version. In the future I’ll have to investigate this further.

As I expected, I couldn’t follow along with the service. It was entirely in Hebrew, no one called out the page numbers, and the rabbi and other readers were speed-reading through the prayers and blessings.  Some of it was familiar; many of the blessings were the same ones I hear at Minyan in the mornings; but others were very different.

What was fascinating was that while everyone was following along, some of the attendees seemed to be moving along at their own pace as well. They would sway and bow and recite blessings in Hebrew on their own; it was as if they were hypnotized. They were with the group, but also in their own world.

The most beautiful part of the service was the singing. I didn’t know what they were singing, but it was incredibly haunting and calming. Since I couldn’t sing with them, I just listened. It was easy to get lost in the music.

The service ended with a big  “Shabbat Shalom!” Everyone looked happy and relaxed, very much in the spirit of TGIS (Thank God it’s Shabbat).


Though I couldn’t follow along or understand the Hebrew, I enjoyed this Shabbat service the most.  Maybe it was the fact that it was the most “exotic” of the Shabbat services I attended. Maybe it was because it was a Friday night service as opposed to a Saturday morning one.  I’m really not sure.

The people that looked like they enjoyed it the most, however, were the ones who could really follow along with the service, the ones who read the Hebrew, knew when to bow, when to sit, when to sing, and what to sing. To get to that point, they must have studied and practiced these rituals over a long period of time.

If that’s true, then this supports my hypothesis that you need to work to really get the benefits of religion.

A common criticism of Orthodox religions everywhere is that they are inaccessible; and that’s true. They are inaccessible until you achieve a minimal level of “competence” in the religion.

If you are trying to learn a new sport, say, baseball, you most likely would not enjoy it until you practiced enough to see some success. Once you were able to hit and catch the ball with some consistency, your enjoyment of the sport would grow. Baseball is inaccessible until you learn to play baseball.

If we want the benefits of religion, perhaps we need to adjust our mindset to one that expects rewards only after a period of hard work, instead of a mindset that criticizes the religion for being “too inaccessible.”