This morning, I went to shul in trousers, something I’d never have done in Manchester.
Although I’m not a religious or observant person, I always felt that it was incumbent upon me to adhere to the rules, traditions and Halacha when going to shul. As I’m clueless when it comes to which is which (rules, traditions and Halacha), I’d always err on the side of caution and wear a skirt and cover my head, naturally. I’d also steer clear of short sleeves, following a rather uncomfortable incident during kiddush one week when the rabbi whispered under my hat and directly into my ear that I should make sure my elbows are covered in future. The fact that he was so close to my face that I could feel his breath on my cheek as he spoke to me didn’t seem to bother him. However, it did me, and I barely set foot in the place after that.
Truth be told, ever since I was a child, I’ve been a little wary of rabbis. They always seemed so much older than me (although nowadays, everyone, including rabbis, appears to be much younger). I had a general feeling of inadequacy when I was around one, probably due to my lack of faith and observance.
In short, I felt like I was being judged.
And so my relationship with the house of worship has all but withered and died, along with my faith, which wasn’t so great to start with, having been brought up traditional and going to shul three times a year (twice on Rosh Hashanah and once on Yom Kippur).
Nowadays, I only go to shul when I must (weddings, bar mitzvahs, and so on) and that’s it.
However, I’ve become reacquainted with some old friends from Manchester recently, who also made aliyah a few years ago and now live locally: Dr Rabbi Jonathan Lieberman and his wife, Elisheva (a.k.a. Jonny and Elisheva).
Until recently, Jonny was the rabbi of the Young Israel shul in Poleg, which happens to be at the bottom of my street, and he and Elisheva are still very involved with its day to day running.
During a recent meeting with them, they told me about the relaxed and informal nature of the shul. They insisted that I’d feel comfortable there and invited me to come along on shabbos to see for myself.
I could even wear trousers and leave my head uncovered if I wanted to, they said, what’s important is that you will be welcome, whatever you wear.
I was a little skeptical, to say the least, but out of respect for the rabbi, I agreed to go to shul on Shabbat – in trousers.
Feeling a little scared about the whole thing, I tried to rope in a couple of friends. When I asked them to come to shul with me, they were a bit surprised, to say the least. One asked if I had a yahrzeit (anniversary of a death), while the other looked at me incredulously. I told them of my plan to go in trousers. One incredulously refused to come with me on that basis, saying that it wasn’t right, while the other agreed to come, but asserted that she’d be in a skirt.
Shabbat morning arrived.
I nervously ate breakfast, showered and picked out an outfit: a pair of old work trousers (which thankfully still fitted) and a long sleeved shirt (something which I also wore to the office back in the day).
I dressed and waited on the street for my friend who didn’t arrive. I made my way to the shul, nervously looking around at others who were also on their way there. I wondered if they knew I was one of them, on my way to shul, given the fact that I was in trousers.
When I arrived, I was greeted by the sight of young mums and dads sunning themselves outside, as their kids ran around. All of the women were wearing skirts or dresses with colorful head scarves or hats to match. I felt really out of place, like a pork sausage at a bar mitzvah.
To add insult to injury, I realized that I’d forgotten to bring a mask, so I had to walk all the way home to get one (where I was met by my youngest son who’d just gotten up and asked me why I was dressed for work) and back again. This time, I wasn’t so nervous. The sheer absurdity of the whole situation seemed to calm me down.
I girded my loins and walked in. As I’d completely missed the service itself, I found Elisheva in the kitchen, sorting food for the kiddush along with a number of other women. She was warm and welcoming and immediately introduced me to everyone there. I’m not sure anyone even noticed my trousers; if they did, they kept it well hidden.
A wonderful outdoor kiddush with cholent was then enjoyed by all, as the sun shone and the kids carried on playing. I almost forgot I was in shul (or outside shul to be precise), such was the informal nature of the gathering.
The morning ended with a wonderful shiur (class) presented by a woman in the shul hall to a mixed audience. There were no frills, no mechitza, no judgment, just acceptance, warmth and joy.
I’m already planning what I’ll wear to shul next week. I may even get there in time for the davening!
The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Netanya, where she spends most of her time writing and enjoying her new life in Israel.