A Chanukah gift from my rabbi

Posted on December 28, 2007

When I met with my rabbi again a week later, he began by asking me what are the obstacles to feeling relaxed and happy in shul.

Three came immediately to mind.

The first was that I am occasionally asked to help in a variety of ways. I love this. It helps me feel connected and valued and a real part of the community. Some things, like helping out in the kitchen, are easy and require no planning on my part. Other things, like being asked to lead a children’s service or women’s tefillah group, are not.

It isn’t that they require planning. I know these things well enough that I could probably do them cold. But I am scared to. Maybe it is the OCD or maybe it’s my experience or maybe it’s something entirely different, but I get extremely anxious if I haven’t practiced and prepared to the point of knowing it backwards and forwards and upside down. And even then I am scared but I do it anyway. And it always works out well and no one has ever suggested I not do this anymore, but I am terrified of making a mistake.

To that, my rabbi told me what he tells his bar and bat mitzvah students. He said in school, to get an A you need to score at least 90%. So however much of whatever they are doing for their bar or bat mitzvah, if they get 90% of it right, they’ve earned an A. The previous Shabbos, for instance, the bar mitzvah davened about 2/3 of the service and layned all but one of the Torah readings. Figuring the bar mitzvah was leading maybe two hours of the morning, my rabbi said he could have had 12 minutes of mistakes and still earned an A, and to date, no one has ever had that many mistakes.

This helped a little. I still have to find ways to cope with the anxiety, but he said he would do his part to give me advance notice if there was something he wanted me to do.

The second thing I said was silly and I was embarrassed to even bring it up. My rabbi assured me, and in earnest, that it could not be silly. So I told him, still feeling embarrassed, that I was afraid of losing my seat. You see, I almost always sit in the same seat on Shabbos. I chose it years ago and made sure it had been unoccupied before me. It still seems silly to say, but it has great meaning and significance for me.

But one of the times I was absent with a long depression, another woman began sitting there. When I returned one Shabbos and she came in late, she was horribly upset with me that I had taken her seat. She went to other women and complained about me. One mutual friend said yes, it’s been your (her) seat for a short while, but before it was your seat, it indeed was Rivka’s. I felt, in a word, ashamed. This other woman decided to move and found a seat that was better for her, she said, but it took a very long time before I felt comfortable in my seat again. And to this day, I am anxious until I arrive at shul and see that my seat is available.

I did tell my rabbi that someone–like him–could use this as a reason for me to be in shul every single week, and the earlier the better. He laughed and said, I wasn’t going to go there, really. The reality, we both know, is that I have young children and a brain disorder and people get sick on occasion and sometimes I can’t make it on time, if at all. He said he would be willing, and saw no problem with, putting a sign on that seat that said, please do not sit here until X hour. I was afraid of that beginning a whole seat reservation system, so I declined, but he seemed seriously willing to do that and it really touched me.

The third and last thing had to do with dinners that take place a few times a year in the shul. On those occasions, I told him, when there is no pre-arranged seating, it is very common for me to wind up virtually alone with my family. Let me explain. Some tables seat 8. Others seat 10. My family is not so large that we’d occupy an entire table (b’ezrat HaShem, it will someday be larger). People tend to gravitate toward their friends and people they know well, and despite the fact that I have been at this shul actively for thirteen years, I am still a newcomer. So other tables fill quickly and I need to sit with my children, so we find a table and there are still enough seats for others to join us but no one does. It is very hard not to take this personally, even though I know it is not intended as such. My solution is that I stopped going, but this still left me feeling sad and excluded.

This Chanukah, the shul hosted a latke dinner on a Sunday evening and there was no pre-arranged seating. My children really wanted to go, so we went. After Ma’ariv, we were one of the last families to find seats, because as many parents know, people without children can move faster than those of us with, and there were few children that evening.

I was near tears, just knowing this was going to happen again, when my rabbi came up beside me and gestured to a particular table with one parent and one child sitting at it. I looked around and saw everyone else was seated. He saw that, too, and as soon as his wife emerged from the kitchen, he wordlessly asked her to sit at our table. And when he was done with the parts of the evening that required him to be standing and mobile, he came and sat with us. It was the first time in at least eight years that I have sat at a table with adults other than my husband to talk to.

I don’t know if he realized just how meaningful that gesture was. In a way, I really hope he does, because it meant the world to me, not to have to be left out of the conversation, left out of the community, again. And I got to know his wife a little better, which was very nice. It was a truly wonderful gift.


  1. Anonymous

    Sound like your rabbi really went out of his way to be thoughtful. He sounds like a caring man.

  2. Rivka

    Leora: I’m so sorry you had to go through that as a newcomer. It isn’t right. There’s certainly something to be said for makom kavua but not at the expense of embarrassing or insulting another.

    RWAC: Thank you for your suggestion. I have tried it before without much success (oh, we’re already sitting with so-and-so) but not in a while. Things do change and this may be one of them.

    It seems so weird that you talk about people learning from this blog. I guess it is still a new concept for me, and I feel very humbled that others find it valuable. Thank you for all of your support.

    Halfnutcase: I was so embarrassed to bring up that second one, not only with my rabbi but even here. I thought for sure most people would scoff and say, get over it. But I am amazed, and a little saddened, that so many others can understand. It shouldn’t be this way, but I don’t know how to change it.

    Scraps: Thank you for reading and for your support. I was so certain–and fearful–about the reaction I’d get when I started blogging, and I am happy to report that the J-blogosphere has proven me very, very wrong.

  3. Scraps

    That is a truly thoughtful, special gift. It sounds like your rabbi really cares about you and wants to make you feel comfortable and welcome in the shul.

    On a personal note, I’m really glad to see you blogging again! (I only just found this out because I don’t have an RSS feed.) Please continue to update.

  4. Looking Forward

    I can soo empathize with so many of your concerns.

    Particularly the last two.

  5. rabbi without a cause


    Thanks for continuing to update your progress. I hope others – and not only rabbis – will learn from both your experience and your rabbi’s responses.

    Another suggestion re: seating – If this doesn’t involve too great a fear of rejection, could you talk to someone in advance? Perhaps you could strike up a conversation with someone who has a child the same age as your own, and casually suggest sitting together at the event? You might simply suggest that your child would enjoy sitting with hers, and see what happens.

  6. Leora


    Your rabbi is truly a wonderful man. The gesture of setting up a table so that you would have other adults besides your family was very thoughtful.

    But you also have a lot of strength in your ability to connect with him. There are probably others within the shul with whom you can connect as well, although maybe in more “superficial” ways at first.

    We have problems with sitting arrangements and people saving seats for friends/family in our shul as well. And I can so relate to the “makom kavua” problem…it just doesn’t work so well. I remember when I first moved to my current community and being told “that seat is taken” instead of “welcome to our shul, are you new?”

    – Leora

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