As a volunteer with Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly, I spend time each week visiting Nadia, a refusenik from the former Soviet Union. Born Jewish, I imagine Nadia is in a tiny minority, having converted to Christianity some years ago. I know her family suffered much at the hands of the KGB, but I know little about her reasons for converting.
When I visit we sometimes go to a local Baptist church, but being in St. Louis Park, a part of the Twin Cities with a sizeable Jewish population, I have always wanted to visit one of the area’s many synagogues, so when Nadia asked me if I’d like to do so I agreed.
Last night we decided to go to a Shabbat Friday evening service. To our surprise the progressive synagogue we chose to visit was closed so we drove to another one nearby, Bais Yisroel. Approaching the entrance, I looked through the window at a room full of black-clad men rocking their torsos back and forth, nodding their heads. “Nadia, this is an orthodox synagogue! Will they even let us in?” I said.
At the door, a man dressed in a black hat, suit and tie greeted us. I told him we’d like to join the service.
“There’s no reason why you can’t…I suppose,” he said, appearing surprised at the request.
“Are you Jewish?” he asked.
“Actually, no, I just want to check out the service,” I replied.
When Nadia said she born Jewish but was now Christian, a fellow congregant who had now joined the man at the door replied, “C’mon, if you were born Jewish you are Jewish!”
Consider: A Brit and a Soviet refugee, born Jewish, now Christian, wanting to join a service at an orthodox synagogue. No wonder the looks! After a little more gentle persuasion they said Nadia could go upstairs to the balcony to pray with the women and I could join the men in the main room. No mixing of the sexes here.
I then walked into a large room of about 200 men clad in dark suits and long black coats. Some sported beards; others ear locks. Many wore large black felt hats; others round fur-lined hats. A majority were rocking back and forward, chanting. Strolling to the back wearing my bright red scarf, I must have looked incongruous to those around me. If the intent of wearing black is to avoid frivolity then it clearly works.
I soon found a chair at the back of the room and sat down, content just to observe. Within a few minutes someone brought me a skull cap which I promptly placed on my head as a sign of respect. I was also handed a Hebrew Bible (one side of the page in English) and told, “This is so that you can pray.”
Outside it was cold and winter and dark. Inside, the congregants practiced rituals that the passage of time has done little to erase; the liturgy sometimes sung, sometimes chanted, the rituals time honored. It was as if I was living in a kind of continuous present - at a quick glance I might believe I was somewhere in 17th century Eastern Europe. But if you have been persecuted for so long I imagine it's important to hold onto your traditions.
What was great is that no one raised so much as an eyebrow at the odd looking fellow in a bright red scarf who likely didn’t look Jewish and who remained seated throughout; furthermore, I was the only one not wearing a shirt and tie.
Outside in the lobby people were very friendly, smiling when our eyes met, and introducing themselves to me. I had a great time and left feeling a sense of respect. We didn't talk about it afterward, as I took Nadia straight home, but I am keen to hear her impressions when I next see her.