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Bar Mitzvah Services: Synagogue Etiquette
Orthodox Perspective by Rivka C. Berman

Proper etiquette for attending a Bar Mitzvah or a Bat Mitzvah ceremony in an orthodox synagogue includes proper attire, and general respect for your surrounding.

Please be sure to dress modestly, which should consist of casual or formal wear (considerate of hosts' request) that are fashioned with sleeves, no plunging necklines, and legs covered at least to the knees for women, casual or formal wear for men, and kippa (will be furnished by the synagogue if necessary). 

Observance of the Sabbath
Some orthodox synagogues close their parking areas, so if you're driving to the synagogue find out about alternative parking in advance. Cell phones should be shut off until you leave the synagogue.  If you are a doctor on call, leave your phone on vibrator, and when called leave the sanctuary and step outside the synagogue to answer your calls.

In general, guests may sit wherever they wish in the synagogue. At Orthodox synagogues men and women sit in separate sections for the services, and some also for the celebration. Material used for the dividers (mechitza) between the two seating areas varies. Half walls, filmy curtains, trellises, balconies, tall wood stands, reflective glass windows have all been employed as mechitzot, dividers.

If you are orthodox, you are familiar with this custom and are already in the habit of separating from your spouse or significant other during services. If you are not orthodox, and are fundamentally opposed to the old ways of doing things, and this separation of the genders is not to your liking, you should still comply.  Out of respect for the congregation and the folks who honored you with an invitation, respect the rules and regulations for the day.  Remember this is not about your convictions.  It is the bar mitzvah boy’s or bat mitzvah girl’s day. Honor it. 

It always saddens me when I see people who show utmost respect to followers of Islam, Christians and adherers of Far-Eastern religions, dismiss their own heritage and disregard the sensitivities of their fellow Jews. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.  But remember the words of our great King Solomon "To everything there is a season and a time for every thing" and also "There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak."  (Kohelet /Ecclesiastes)

Some seats may be reserved for the bar or  bat mitzvah family. Synagogue members may wish to sit in “their” seat. Respect that. It’s unbecoming and disruptive to hassle (and not worth it). An “oops, excuse me” should be enough to smooth things over.

Arriving and Leaving
People arrive at different times throughout the service. In an ideal world, everyone would arrive a bit before services began, settle in and wait for the rabbi to start. I have yet to see a congregation of idealists. Generally everyone who is going to be there will be at the synagogue before the Torah service.

If you must leave the synagogue during services, do so quietly. Close your siddur, prayer book. Place it on your seat or in the siddur stand by your seat. Some people honor the prayer book by touching the siddur and kissing their hands after closing the cover. Laying a siddur on the floor is considered disrespectful. Try not to leave during the Torah service or during the sermon.

Given the innumerable variables that go into prayer services it’s hard to say how long each service will last. Ask your host.

Movement During Prayer
Bowing is traditional at certain points in the service. A Jewish prayer bow begins with a slight bending of the knees and a little bow from the waist as the legs are straightened. Rocking or swaying helps some people concentrate on their prayers. Souls are likened to flames, and during prayer souls are stirred like flames in a breeze.

Talking During the Service
“If you come to services to talk, where do you go to pray?” One synagogue had this posted on a sign at its entrance. A pointed question for a persistent problem.

It’s a challenge,  but don’t converse during services. Just as you wouldn’t interrupt a conversation with a CEO to answer a telephone call, don’t chat during prayers to God.

Living up to this ideal is difficult because people want to offer their congratulations, greet guests, say “hello.” Try nodding. Wave discreetly. Yes, other people will be talking, but it’s better to do what is right.

What to Say
After services, greet the bar mitzvah boy who read the Torah with the words “Ya-sher ko-ach,” a phrase that means “may your strength increase” and is used as a general way of saying “good job.” Or congratulate a bat or bar mitzvah with “mazal tov,” a general wish meaning “[you should have] good luck.”

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