It’s funny how some things can be different, located thousands of miles from home and filled with strangers, and yet be filled with a complete sense of familiarity. Last night I went to a local shabbat service with two of my friends from the abroad program. We were all rather tentative, but the experience turned out to be the highlight of my week.
Although the service was conducted in French and the melodies were different, there was indispensable staple that you find in any Jewish service that infused the whole thing with very familiarity: hebrew. The singing was different (far more powerful than I’m used to- possibly a hallmark of just this particular community), but the words were the same ones that I learned as a child in Upstate New York. My friends and I were able to sing along with ease and reap the same benefits that we do in the States.
Additionally, this community was filled with the most welcoming people I have met in France. The moment we walked in the door they all wanted to talk to us in a whirlwind mix of English and French. They wanted to know whether we were reform or conservative and offer us a place to hang our coats. I think we were there for just ten minutes before they offered for us to do the candle lighting (for non-jews: an honor at the beginning of friday night services). We hesitantly accepted and nervously led the prayer when the time came, clumsily adjusting to one unfamiliar custom in the process and feeling enveloped by the warmth of the community.
I only caught about 20% of the sermon, but I think it was very interesting as the rabbi spoke about the holocaust, which has a particularly interesting local history in the Alsace region. However, I don’t know when he made a tradition to speaking about slavery…
After the service, familiarity again washed over us, as a woman came forward and insisted that we stay for some food. Of course we couldn’t say no, so we sat down to a mix of jewish and french foods and engaged in more mixed language conversation. They were all very eager to talk to us and couldn’t have been kinder. When the food was gone, the rabbi brought the prayer books back out and asked us to lead a couple of American melodies. It was terrifying at first (my singing voice is not exactly award-winning), but when everybody else joined in, it became quite enjoyable.
After having spent over two hours with the Strasbourg liberal Jewish community (liberal is everything except orthodox in France), we finally excused ourselves. Directly outside the door, one of my friends exclaimed, “Can we do that again?!” And I had to agree with her- we’ll be going back. It’s hard to resist such inviting people.