September 16, 2019

Simple Synagogue Rules for Non-Jewish Guests

Attending a bar/bat mitzvah can be confusing, and perhaps even daunting, especially for guests who aren’t Jewish.

Questions might arise such as: Can I wear black? Do I bring a gift? What is a bar/bat mitzvah?

While familiarity with the party that follows the bar or bat mitzvah is ubiquitous, and frequently played for laughs in films like “Keeping Up With the Steins,” the coming-of-age ceremony itself is less widely known among non-Jews.

Learning about ceremony details beforehand can help non-Jewish guests avoid any faux pas and/or culture shock.

Rabbi Joshua Hoffman of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino, said there’s no need for non-Jews to get nervous before the big event.

“You don’t have to be Jewish to sing along,” he said. “You can put a clip on to hold the kippah, dressing modestly is a value … and don’t be afraid to ask questions.” 

When it comes to prayer, he said non-Jews are not expected to participate.

“There is no effort to convert non-Jews or to persuade anyone that Jewish prayer or Judaism is the best way to encounter God. It is our way and you are welcome to join your prayers with ours,” Hoffman said.

Jeff Bernhardt, a b’nai mitzvah educator at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation, said he believes it is a good idea for non-Jewish guests to ask the hosts, or others in the know, whether there are specific practices they should be sensitive to during a given service.

Some helpful questions include: What can I expect? or Is there anything I should know in advance that would be helpful?

Bernhardt recommends the book “How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook” (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2002) as a helpful reference, and he also suggests looking online prior to the event for answers to questions.

When it comes to presents, it’s not unusual for Jewish guests to offer money or gift cards. But Cantor Don Gurney of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Reform synagogue in Koreatown and West Los Angeles, recommends that guests purchase Israel Bonds instead of giving a cash gift. “Rather than give $100, why not buy an Israel bond that will mature and also helps Israel?” he said.

Gurney, however, warns that a cash gift can be a faux pas if the bar mitzvah is being held at an Orthodox congregation.

“In an Orthodox synagogue it is inappropriate to bring cash, so either mail or give it beforehand or during the party,” he said.

When it comes to appropriate dress, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea, a Reform congregation in Tarzana, adds that it is customary for men to cover their heads and women to cover their shoulders in a synagogue. Men cover their heads with a kippah as a sign of respect, and to remind Jews that God sees all that we do. Women cover their shoulders out of modesty in the holiness of the sanctuary and in the presence of the Torah.

After the child finishes his or her Torah reading, some congregations throw candy.

“The custom is connected with the idea of showing a child sweetness at such a sweet moment. Try not to leave a mark that will show up in pictures, and it’s not nice to throw candy at the rabbi,” Moskovitz said.

Also, after a child reads from the Torah or delivers a drash (speech) or a parent speaks to their child, it is inappropriate to applaud in synagogue.

“It is not a performance, but rather a moment of blessing and holiness, so instead, a traditional expression of congratulations and support is given,” he said. “The congregation will often call out to the child or parent, ‘Yasher koach’ [strength to you] or ‘Kol hakavod’ [honor to you].

“There is a concept in Judaism called minhag hamakom [the customs of the place] which are the customs you follow,” he said. “When in doubt about something (i.e., to wear a kippah, to stand or sit), just do what everyone else is doing.”