As a teacher, I was told the first rule of thumb is never to assume anything about your students.
But many Orthodox synagogues presume a certain level of Jewish education and cater to a select number of congregants that can navigate the Hebrew siddur (prayerbook) with ease. Unfortunately, this raises a barrier for others who have not had the luxury of an extensive day-school or yeshiva education.
The fact is that most synagogues, not enough synagogues, are not accessible to beginners, converts and those who want to add to their knowledge. They don’t go out of their way to ensure that no one ever feels lost or out-of-place because the audience they’re catering to did have the luxury of an extensive day-school or yeshiva education and the rest don’t complain.
I’m not a big shul-goer. But I used to be. My health and shul (synagogue) don’t generally mix, a significant problem in my home synagogue that emphasizes singing LOUDLY (ow!), doesn’t have shtenders (book holder) for my arthritic hands and has uncomfortable little chairs that taunt my back. But honestly, the synagogue I found when I decided to convert really ruined me for other synagogues.
When I decided to be Jewish, I found the perfect synagogue for a convert. It has multi-level classes…and especially classes for “beginners.” It has a main service along with a learners service and an intermediate service. When and if Yiddish or Hebrew terms are thrown around, they are explained. And Jews of all affiliations and backgrounds come and join together in its eclectic community.
I hate it when people talk about non-native English speakers or people who don’t speak any English at all and snidely comment, “They should learn English.” Sometimes, I snidely respond back, “You should learn Spanish.” Talk about a role reversal, now I’m begging, really begging, that people think about me when I’m in the room or anticipate that people like me might be in the room and…speak English. Get rid of Hebrew or Yiddish? No, I just think that these terms need to be explained when most of the conversation is in English.
No matter how hard I study Hebrew (and oy, Yiddish!), I’m just not going to catch up fast enough to learn all the little phrases that people throw around casually in Orthodox Jewish communities. And the longer I don’t catch up, the longer I feel excluded. I feel excluded when a rabbi passes me a handout that’s completely in Hebrew even though we both know I can’t read it. I feel excluded when people pass out bentchers (prayer book for the blessing after the meal) that are entirely in Hebrew and the fact that I can bentch in Hebrew goes right out the window because it’s a holiday and it will take me 15 minutes to get through that little itty-bitty insertion. Or when the synagogue I attend just doesn’t want to be bothered with calling out page numbers during services.
A little more English please? Pretty please? An English/Hebrew handout. A Hebrew/English bentcher. A page number. A little more explanation. Go wild with some transliteration. Just a little reminder that you remember that I’m Jewish, too, even though I didn’t have the luxury of day school education, a Jewish mother, observant parents or Israeli citizenship at birth.