In July of 1999, at the end of my very first week at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, I noticed a strange phenomenon occurring on Friday at about 5 p.m., as my colleagues began packing up their desks and hurrying out the door.
“Shabbat Shalom,” I kept hearing people call to one another. “Good Shabbos,” others called back. As the office door creaked open and closed over and over again, the halls echoed with the sound of good-natured greetings. From the vantage point of my office — right across from the kitchen, I could hear that even people who had disagreed bitterly on one issue or another during the week still took the time to exchange good wishes for Shabbat.
As colleagues passed my office, nearly everyone called out a cheerful “Good Shabbos!” as they whizzed by. I responded with a weak smile and a little wave, not knowing what I should say in return.
I was even more puzzled about half an hour later, when my boss came by and said with a smile that I should head home. “It’s almost the Sabbath, so we have to shut down,” she told me, leaning against the doorway. “We close officially at 5:30, even during the summer when we have later sunsets. So, we really shouldn’t be doing any more business today.”
Grateful for the explanation, and her sensitivity to the fact that I wasn’t Jewish and therefore might not have known about the prohibition against work on the Sabbath, I shut down my computer and asked if everyone was always so cheerful on Friday afternoon.
“You should see it in the winter when we close at 3:30,” she said, laughing. “Early sunsets are a good thing.”
Strangely enough, one of my favorite things about choosing a Jewish life was, at one time, the source of my greatest apprehension: celebrating Shabbat. After a couple of months at the Museum, and in spite of a certain awkwardness, I eventually managed to wish people a good Shabbos on Friday afternoon. And as my boss had predicted, winter Fridays did turn out to be a good thing. I spent long, cold winter afternoons wandering around the boutiques of the West Village, or took an early train back home so I could simply relax and unwind after the stress of the work week.
And yet, on those Fridays, I felt an emptiness that I somehow couldn’t name, a feeling that I was missing out on something unique and sacred. When my colleagues discussed their Friday evening or Saturday plans with me, I always felt they were part of a community of celebration — however inconvenient and unwieldy it might seem to an outsider — that expressed holiness in a way that I had never experienced. On the surface, some of the rituals seemed easy — lighting candles, reciting blessings, and gathering friends and family together to share a meal seemed simple enough. But leaving behind the larger world in order to adhere to the mitzvot (commandments) that precluded almost my entire Saturday schedule of errands and chores seemed to me an impossible feat.
And then there was the other piece — going to temple. Although I had attended several Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and a handful of weddings, I had never been to services. A year or two after I began working at the Museum, I finally worked up the courage to attend synagogue services on a Friday night, in the city on the way home from work. I figured that at a big city temple I could remain anonymous, and thus wouldn’t be singled out for any reason.
The services were unlike anything I had ever experienced in a house of worship. I felt I could relate to the emotions being expressed in the liturgy — the sense of celebration in the lively, spirited music, the heartfelt gratitude for the blessings of the week, the hope for peace. For a few months, I became a regular, sitting at the back of the room, hoping that I was blending in. But as time went on and some of the congregants began to recognize me, in a very friendly way people greeted me, asked my name, where I was from, and how did I come to their temple. I felt it was only a matter of time before the truth came out — that I wasn’t Jewish, even though I really wanted to be Jewish. I figured that once people got to know me, they’d realize that I knew very little of the prayers and rituals of the service. And before that could happen, I simply stopped going.
Yet even as I moved away from attending services, I drew closer to making the decision to convert. To some degree, my friends at the Museum became a substitute congregation full of teachers and learners and leaders. But once I made the decision, in my heart, I knew I would have to make my spiritual home somewhere; it was just a matter of finding a place where I could fit in as well as I did at work.
A rabbi friend of one of my colleagues told me wonderful things about the synagogue in my town, and from my very first meeting with the rabbi there, I felt comfortable working and studying with him. As I studied in the months leading up to my conversion, I observed some of the Shabbat rituals at home. In spite of my Introduction to Judaism classes and the knowledge I had gained in several years of working at the Museum, I was still convinced that I didn’t know enough about Judaism to go to services, even though my rabbi urged me to attend and assured me that no one would make me feel uncomfortable. But even as I longed to be part of a community that welcomed the Sabbath with prayer and song, I was still terrified to go to temple for fear that I would be singled out for my ignorance. Friday nights came and went as I wavered on the decision: to go or not to go.
Finally, I was fortuitously invited by friends in my class to attend services with them. Entering the sanctuary, I was delighted to recognize the same melody I had heard at the city synagogue I had attended. That small detail was enough to convince me that perhaps I wasn’t as ignorant as I feared. It may not have been much, but it was something.
These days, on Friday evenings, I can be found hurriedly packing away the folders and papers on my desk, and rushing out the door to catch the train home. More often than not, I run into someone from my temple at Grand Central while I’m waiting on line for challah at Zaro’s, or buying a bouquet of flowers from Dahlia. Very often I will see them later on at services, which have become an integral part of my week. Yet it still amazes me a little that when I hear the greeting, “Shabbat Shalom” as we pass one another on the train platform, it feels so natural to smile back and reply, “Good Shabbos.”