First Time In An Orthodox Shul

Jane emails: “Do you have any advice for me before I go walking into an Orthodox synagogue?”

* Know that in Orthodox Judaism, men and women pray separately. The more Orthodox the community, the more men and women are separated, not just in prayer but also socially. So when you walk in the door, look for your section and sit accordingly.

* Dress appropriately. For men, that means a suit. For women, that means a dress that falls below the knee and a top that covers the arms, not to mention the jewels. Don’t wear open-toed shoes. Don’t dress provocatively.

* If you enter a shul on the Shabbat, be prepared for such greetings as “Gut Shabbos” or “Shabbat shalom.” Either is fine as a response. On Jewish holidays, prepare such greetings as “Gut yontif” or “chag sameach.”

* Understand that most Jews and most Orthodox Jews have no interest in getting non-Jews to convert to Judaism. I think this is a beautiful thing, but whether it is beautiful or ugly, it is a fact. So govern yourself accordingly. Don’t expect to be welcomed and embraced. Don’t think of yourself as a prize to be captured. Don’t start asking questions until somebody has indicated that he welcomes your questions.

* No matter how prepared you are to step foot in an Orthodox shul, you’re going to stick out. Most people will ignore you. Some people may question you. Don’t give more of an answer than a person has asked for. Many prospective converts are just brimming over with desire to discuss their conversion and unload on unsuspecting Orthodox Jews who have little interest. So don’t unload or unburden yourself with people who are not that into you.

* There are proportionately as many sexual and financial predators among Orthodox Jews and among Orthodox rabbis as among any other group, so don’t be a fool. If you show yourself as easy to be taken advantage of, you’re gonna get screwed.

* Have your life together before you step foot inside an Orthodox shul and an Orthodox conversion program. Have a secure living. Have friends. If you’re isolated, fix that through therapy and 12-step programs before seeking admittance to Orthodox Judaism.

* Here’s more advice on converting to Orthodox Judaism.

Greg Leake gives a goy’s perspective:

Hi Luke,

I have seen a few people have it a little easier in the conversion process. I’ve never been asked if I would like to convert, but a few things have been advanced that were close. Once in a discussion an Orthodox Jew said invitingly, “You could convert. That’s what I did.” Of course he was a convert and was maybe wanting some company.

I also gather that if one is a woman, and an Orthodox Jewish man really wants this woman to convert, and she is interested, and he is well-respected in his shul, sometimes the process may be made a little easier.

Another thing I’ve learned is if a congenial goy lives long enough in an Orthodox community, one does automatically begin to pick up some Orthodox friendships. Of course, these friendships are rather truncated because communal meals are difficult, getting together on Saturday is difficult, etc., etc.

As I have said, I live in a neighborhood now which is a mixture of regular Texans and Orthodox Jews. For many years, my family ran a business in Skokie, Illinois. So even though I personally have never had any interest in converting to Orthodox Judaism, I’ve been around, and one does find that in that kind of situation the friends that one makes over the years would probably extend themselves to help out a little. Someone in the situation I have alluded to shows up at the door already having some friends in tow.

When my friend suggested that I could convert, that’s what he did, I tried to avoid that “someone just said I need to go to the dentist” expression. For me, it would be like pulling teeth. I have met converts, and sometimes it seems to have worked out well for them, but they seem to be trying to serve a rather special set of needs. The situation I have seen work out the best was when a prominent and well thought of Orthodox Jew wanted to marry a Gentile who was totally into it. For them things seemed to work pretty smoothly.

Of course this is just my postage stamp sized take based only on my own rather limited personal experience.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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