From a lifelong sanctuary skeptic.
Confession time: as a kid, I couldn’t stand services. I’d kick my little feet against the pews, whispering into my mom’s ear, asking when it would be over. Prayer services, this near-universal part of the Jewish experience, simply couldn’t capture me. I imagine many other kids felt the same way, and even as we entered Bat Mitzvah season when I was 13, it was hard for me to keep focus. Even now, being 15, I find it difficult to attend services even though I’d like to enjoy them. I have found, over the years, that there are some ways to make them more meaningful.
Appreciate your purpose in going there.
Many times, I’ve gone to synagogue with the purpose of attending a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I’ve heard my friends, my sister, and now my sister’s friends read Torah. In these instances, I try to remember why I’m there: to support someone I care about. Especially for a nervous B’nai mitzvah, it can be reassuring to see a kind, friendly face out in the audience, happy and supportive of them no matter what.
But not every time I’m at synagogue is for a friend’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. When I am there on a holiday, I like to think about the holiday’s themes specifically. Maybe I’m celebrating the new year on Rosh Hashanah. Then it’s helpful to reflect on the past 365 days of my life, and what has changed, and what has remained the same. On Yom Kippur, I reflect more specifically on my regrets, and how I can improve. These reasons may not resonate with you, but I suggest taking time before you enter the sanctuary to think about why you’re there, for it can make the experience more meaningful.
Read the translation.
In my Conservative synagogue, we don’t read the English translation of the Torah aloud. During the lengthy chanting of that week’s Torah portion, I find it interesting to open to the English translation of the week’s parsha and read. Many stories in the Torah are fascinating and really make you think, and even if you know the basics, I find it engaging to go back to the original text.
Learn more about how to pray.
If you’re sitting in services and don’t know what the prayers mean, let alone how to say them, of course, it’s not going to be as meaningful as it could be. If you learn the prayers to the point where you can sing along, it’s much more fun. Learning the meaning behind them can bring depth to your experience as well.
One prayer I have found particularly helpful is the opening prayer said before the Amidah: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:15). The liturgy tells us that it is normal to have some reservations about prayer, in fact, services are actually structured in a way to help people overcome that hesitancy.
If none of these other tips work for you, this is a good one. Many people find themselves returning to services because they find them inherently reflective and meditative. Even if you don’t feel that way naturally, many Siddurim (prayer books) have relaxing and thought-provoking poems and reflections. Additionally, services are a safe environment to simply breathe and calm yourself from whatever stressors you may have been experiencing recently.
Remember that services aren’t the only part of being Jewish. If you’ve read all of these tips, tried them, and still can’t get through services, remember that services aren’t the only part of being Jewish. One Erev Rosh Hashanah, even our rabbi acknowledged the possibility that we may find our mind drifting. Just remember that Tikkun Olam or repairing the world, community, and a personal relationship with your faith are all extremely important to think about regardless of your relationship to communal prayer. So if services just ultimately aren’t your thing, remember you are no less Jewish.