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Thoughts on my first visit to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue

Last night, my older brother picked up some food at a kosher meat market. The Jewish guy behind the counter told my brother, “We’re having a Purim service tonight – why don’t you come?”

Purim, for those fine blog readers who don’t know, is the Jewish holiday remembering the story of Hadassah (Esther) in the Jewish and Christian bibles. Unlike the Feasts of Leviticus 23, Purim is not commanded by God; it’s truly a Jewish feast. It is a celebratory festival where Jews celebrate how Hadassah and Mordechai saved the Jews of Persia from an evil Persian politician, Haman, who attempted to exterminate Jews through political means.

So, back to our story last night:

My brother called me up, and off we went to a Chabad Orthodox Jewish synagogue for the Purim holiday. I wanted to record the experience here while it’s still fresh in my mind.

Heading there, I wasn’t sure what to expect. A little nervous, knowing that if anyone knew me to be a believer in Yeshua, I’d probably be unwelcomed. I knew for sure I wasn’t going as a means to convert Jews to another religion; I’m not a salesman out to sell Christianity. I certainly didn’t want to offend or cause discord; knowing full well the Chabadniks practice a very strict form of Judaism, I came decked out with my talit koton and tzitzit. (Still knowing I wouldn’t quite fit in – no beard, no big black hat or yarmulke!) I brought my Tenakh only. I didn’t come with any hidden agenda, I went to celebrate the fact that God saved his people, and to mingle with others doing the same.

When we arrived, the small building was packed to overflowing. We had no place to sit, so we stood in the doorways of the sanctuary where the book of Esther was being sung in Hebrew chant.

Looking around, many of the men were decked out in Orthodox Jewish garb: bearded men with big black hats, black suit, black pants:


But these weren’t the only folks there. A number of men, perhaps not as strict in their halakah, would wear only yarmulke and wear plain secular clothes. Others wore Purim costumes as is often the custom for this celebratory holiday.

During the reading of Esther, each time the evil Haman was mentioned, the crowd would boo, jeer, shoot children’s cap guns and swing their noise makers, as is customary.

During the reading, a Jewish man and his family came up behind us. Seeing our fringes, he asked if we would like some yarmulkes. Yes, we said. The man returned with 2 kippas for us. We talked with him during the service; he asked about our families, where we were from, where we attend congregation. That’s one clear thing I got during the whole time there – a strong sense of family. “Is your family here with you?”, the man asked. “No, it’s just me and my brother”, I replied. “You should bring them.” said the man without hesitation.

I got the sense that the Orthodox understand Judaism has helped preserve the Jewish people, and that to be Jewish, one ought to have his whole family part of the synagogue. It’s unlike a church, where there’s this underlying optional feeling to attending; for Judaism, it’s meant to be part of life, part of being Jewish. You’re Jewish, so you attend the synagogue. Doesn’t matter if you’re “secular”. You’re a son of Israel, so you’re there and welcomed.

The man asked about our family name, I assume in hopes to discover whether we’re Jewish or just goyim decked out in Jewish garb. I explained our last name, and my partial Jewish ancestry. We continued to talk until a man came up to us, “Guys, this will be a fun party tonight, but now we’re reading and ask you to be quiet, OK?”

Hushed we were, and a little embarrassed. Oh well.

The service ended. My brother recognized the cantor who was chanting the book of Esther, remembered the cantor as a customer in his store. We went up and talked to him. He said, “Oh yes, I remember you. And I saw you guys talking during my chanting.” Woops.

Food was served free of charge for everyone. That’s another thing about Chabad, I hear they never charge for their Passover services or other feasts. This was no different – a buffet of Chicken, rice, salad, pastries, and beverages for all attending, free of charge.

We got in line for the food and another Jewish guy started talking to us. While I was a little uncomfortable talking to the first guy when we arrived, this guy in the food line was really friendly and cool. “Where do you go to congregation?”, he asked. We replied, “A small group of us meets in homes on shabbat and studies the Scriptures.” “Cool,” he says, “Is it run by Chabad?” “No, it’s just family and friends. My dad runs the study.” He was cool with that. Nice guy, friendly. I could get along with him. We talked with him for awhile as the food line was long with so many people there.

Once we got our food, we had no place to sit as the place was overflowing with people. We started to eat our food standing, but one of the men from the congregation saw us, and without us asking, grabbed a man and setup another table with chairs right there in the walkway. That’s another thing I’ve heard about Chabad, they meet the need immediately without hesitation. I like that.


We sat down to eat at our newly-provided table. We were approached by a gray-bearded rabbi, decked out in fanciful costume for Purim, wearing a big pink hair wig. He came up to us, holding a bottle of Crown Royal whisky. I had to laugh to myself, imagining what a foreign thing this would be to Christians, seeing a veteran gray-bearded religious man in a pink hair wig going table to table with a bottle of celebratory alcohol.

He came up to us and asked, “A little shot?”

Sure, why not.

“But first, I will say a bracha. And then you must say one to me.”

He proceeded to pour us shot cups of hard stuff, and of course one for himself. His blessing was,

“May you always get everything you need, but not everything you want.”

I fumbled for a quick return blessing. “May God always have his hand on you!”


Ok, shoot back the Crown Royal. Youch, that’s strong.

A Russian family came to our table and sat with us. Really kind folks. A man and his wife and their 20 something year old son Greg. They came from a Reform Jewish background, not strict religious at all, but very kind people. Greg told us about his adventures to Israel, joining the military for 2 years. “It’s the greatest thing a Jew can do for his country”, he said to us. We chimed in agreement.

Another religious leader came by with a cart full of whisky and various liquors. Really is a celebration feast! I had a tiny bit of Irish whisky. Not nearly as hard as the Crown Royal.

We talked more with the Russian Jewish family about life, religion, Israel, aliyah. It was good. They were really nice people. The son Greg was especially nice, a very real guy. Too many religious people I know are so, um, religious and awkward. Greg wasn’t like that. Good kid. Greg explained that in order to prove his Jewish ancestry and join the IDF, he had to fill out 40 papers. “Makes filing your taxes look like a job application.” He had to get an Orthodox rabbi to investigate his family ancestry, seeing if his ancestors were buried in Jewish cemeteries, in order to move to Israel and join the military there. We talked more with them about our families and background. Explaining our partial Jewish ancestry, our gentile wives, all kinds of things, being pretty open with them. They were accepting of it all.

After all the mingling and food, we decided it was time to go. We wanted to talk one last time with our pink-haired friend before leaving. He was completely drunk now. I pulled out my phone and took a snapshot:


Too funny.

On the way out, we talked with Greg again. The cantor came up to me and talked for a few minutes. Then another Jewish guy talked with me for a few minutes more on my way out the door.

We had a good time. It’s hard to judge the religious nature of people at such a weird time. Purim is definitely a weird time to visit a Chabad Orthodox Jewish synagogue. It’s strange to see people who are so strict in their religious observance be all…crazy and partying.

Relaying all this to my wife when I got home, she said, “Um, aren’t they supposed to be religious? Isn’t drinking against the Bible?”


I suspect the picture I’ve painted of Chabad for you, fine blog readers, is one of a rowdy gang of Jews. Don’t be fooled. I think I caught them on the one day of the year the Chabad just let loose and party like this. I’d like to attend a shabbat service and see how they worship and pray in their normal form to get a better picture of them.

My closing thoughts is that the people were friendly and opened. Chabad, strict as they are, were accepting of even the least religious Reform Jews, all the way to awkward, partially Jewish guys like myself.


  1. Great post and thanks for your story. Chabad has its virtues and its shameful attributes as well. But don't we all. Kudos to them for their commitment to hospitality, acceptance of fellow Jews and non-Jews, and giving without asking in return.

    Though imperfect, Chabad has a lot from which we could learn.

    Derek Leman

  2. Yes, I agree, we can learn a lot from Chabad. I also draw some correlations between their attachment to the Rebbe and our attachment to Yeshua. More correlations in how anxiously they await Moshiach.

    On a related note, have you listened to Toby Janicki's "Treasures in Heaven" teachings? FFOZ released them recently, and Toby lectures on some lessons we can learn from Chabad.

  3. I just wanted to say thanks for sharing this. I think there is much we can learn from Chabad about life and about our service to G-d. They may not accept Yeshua as Messiah, but they do believe in Messiah adn await His coming. I think we as Believers may have more in common than we may think. It was fun to share your Purim party. Thanks again!

  4. '“Um, aren’t they supposed to be religious? Isn't drinking against the Bible?”'

    There is no prohibition on drinking alcohol in Judaism.
    In fact, every Friday night and Saturday during Shabat meals, and many people have the custom to drink schnapps between fish and meat.

    And the Talmud (Megilla 7b) states that one should drink on "Purim" until he can no longer distinguish between (ad delo yada) the phrases, arur Haman ("Cursed is Haman") and baruch Mordechai ("Blessed is Mordecai")

  5. Hi AdminJew,

    Yeah, my wife was probably referring to certain Scriptures warning against alcohol abuse or drunkenness. I'm thinking of Isaiah and some of the Proverbs in particular.

    I'm aware of the Talmud's encouragement to drink on Purim.

    Many Christians look on drinking and smoking as terrible sins. What can I say, it's a tradition on that side of the fence. Long before all the anti-smoking ads, back when it was still cool to smoke, I remember all these Christian kids TV programs demonizing the hell out of smoking & drinking.

  6. The only time I ever visited a mainline Jewish synagogue was on Purim when I was in college. I remember one of the men was dressed as a baby in a huge diaper. :)

  7. My grandma passed away a little over a month ago. After the funeral, two Chabadniks came to my dad's house (we were sitting shiva) - my dad had some bottles of vodka on the table (as customary). Between shouts of "le'chayim!" those two guys downed a shot after a shot, two bottles, without batting an eye or being least affected (other than being very happy). After all that, they were still upright to lead everyone in prayers. It seemed like they've done this before, once or twice:)

    Anyway, good report, Judah. Also, good to hear you had a positive experience with Russian Jews!


  8. Robyn,

    Ack! I didn't need that picture in my head. :-)

  9. Niice, Judah. I love Chabad, they are great. I knew a secular (and kinda hippy-ish) older Jewish guy who lived in Hastings and ran a coffee shop there. He was good friends with the Chabad Rabbis in Cottage G. They're accepting and genuinely nice to all Jews, and anyone with any ties to Jewishness or Judaism.

    When I conversed with a Chabad Rabbi over email, one of the first things he told me was "the most important thing is to love your fellow Jew as yourself, that's the entirety of Torah." Of course, we know that to be the teaching of the great Sage Rabbi Hillel and a little bit later by HaRav Yeshua.

  10. I so enjoyed reading this post! It sounds like you had a marvelous time.

    I attended Beth Adonai on Sunday evening for a worship service and there were Purim overtones then as well. My family and I had a great time! Booing at Haman, dancing in the aisles, etc. I didn't know Jewish (or even Messianic Jewish) services could be so festive.

    I am not familiar with Chabad, but your description certainly made me more interested in finding out more.

    Thanks for sharing!

  11. Nice recant of the night, I had a blast and look forward to joining them on Sabbath, I feel amongst brothers when im around them!

  12. Thanks for reporting and sharing this! Nice to have an inside look. Hope the time will come soon the East and the West will join together, synagoge and church, it's good to have a bit more from this...

  13. Hi Judah,

    I have been following your blog and Derek Leman's for almost a year. My wife and I are both Christians...starting off in the Catholic church, then Lutheran now attending a Presbyterian church in IN.

    We have made it a priority to study the OT first and then transition into the NT. [all background for my upcoming questions] :))

    I have read in both blogs and many others as to the importance of keeping the laws [10 commandments..other mosiac covenants etc.] but am very confused....

    We completely understand the importance of keeping the sabbath and observing the biblical feasts and are attempting to do so this past year. This would include not celebrating Easter and Christmas int the traditional Christian fashion. The obvious reasons are based on the melding of pagan traditions with the underlying Christ following holiday themes. to the real questions...

    Are we still under THE law[s]? I recently read passages [ Galatians 4:21-31; Hebrews 8:13; 10:1, Hebrews 8 and Colossians 2-3] that seem to point to the fact that the law is void.

    I know you and Derek have mentioned passages stating that Christ did not come to abolish the law [don't recall the specific passages - wish I could] is there a internal conflict/inconsistency [not meaning to be disrespectful of the good book] that is present?

    We both want to do what is the best for our family and raise them the best way we can but are struggling to pick the right fork int the road...[or do we cut a new one down the middle :)) ]

    We don't feel comfortable talking to our pastor as we know what he'll say...'Christ is it and the old laws are abolished' .. which FINE if that is the truth.

    We have prayed often that our eyes would be opened to the path we should follow.....there are so many opinions/interps etc. and sometime our heads spin.

    I, like you, come from an IT background. I am used to black/white...straight forward problems with definitive answers. Maybe that is why this is so hard for me.

    Ok...not to dump allot on you :)) just looking for some guidance etc. I'd be happy to trade emails if you'd

    Hope I didn't over share ;)


  14. Dear Mike,

    If you don't mind, I will also send you an email with my answer regarding "the Law" from a Messianic Jewish perspective. There are lot of dangers out there and misinformation floating around.



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