Harry Golden was a raconteur, newspaper publisher and chronicler of the Southern Jewish experience. His wonderful stores of growing up in the small-town south include a few classics that roll over from anecdote to insight. For example, his father was notoriously an atheist, yet he went to shul every Saturday morning. When Harry asked him about it, he replied, "Everyone goes to synagogue for a different reason. Garfinkle goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkle."
We should celebrate the impulses that bring such a large and wonderful group to synagogue every Friday night and Saturday. Mostly, we at Agudas Achim find that balance that allows each person who so desires to speak with God and each person who so desires to speak with Garfinkle. I write to ask you to be considerate in your practice at our home, but especially considerate when you visit elsewhere.
What inspires this column is an incident from many months ago. At the celebration of one of our many b'nai mitzvah, a guest from a neighboring congregation arrived just as we began the recitation of Sh'ma, around half an hour into services. He walked through the congregation, stopping to greet friends along the way, and then walked to the front of the sanctuary and began a very visible conversation with the celebrating family. The family was clearly uncomfortable (especially since I ask each family specifically not to jump up and down greeting arriving guests during the service), but the guy was oblivious until I could catch his eye and motion him away. He was quite insulted.
Never mind that such behavior would be unacceptable in much less sacred precincts - the theater, a concert, a business meeting or a classroom. And never mind that it is both rude and self-centered behavior. Our tradition prescribes how and when we should enter a room in which prayer is being recited. Upon entering a chapel or sanctuary one should have in mind (and even recite) mah tovu ohalekha ya'akov, mishk'notekha yisrael ("How good are your tents. O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel."). A few things are not to be interrupted - barkhu, the reading of the Torah, the kedusha during the Amidah, to name a few. Primary among them is the Sh'ma. The Talmud instructs that even if greeted by a king or encircled by a snake, one should not interrupt the recitation of the Sh'ma. While neither extreme is likely in our day and age, even Harry Golden's father the atheist had the respect for the endeavor of prayer not to interrupt his friend Garfinkle or show disregard for the purpose of the gathering.
Inevitably, you will be invited to another synagogue for a family event or a friend's celebration. You will be excited to see everyone, perhaps after a long separation. Please do us proud at Agudas Achim by carrying with you the kind of sensitivity you are accustomed to express in our home precincts. (And please let your kids know it is what is expected of them as well.)