Whether you're visiting Europe or traveling across the U.S., an important way to make your trip more meaningful is to tour a synagogue or participate in Shabbat or holiday services. You may discover that exploring Jewish life and tradition in a new destination adds a new dimension to your experience.
If you traditionally attend Shabbat services, look for a congregation at that destination. Many host Friday night dinners and welcome visitors. Reach out to a synagogue, especially in popular resort destinations, and share the holidays as my husband and I did recently with Chabad of Puerto Vallarta for Shavout.
After he lost his mother, Michael Salberg of Highland Park traveled a great deal for his job. When he needed to say Kaddish, he found solace in local congregations. " The great thing about saying Kaddish on the road is that in a time of sorrow you are welcomed as a friend by strangers. Particularly in smaller cities where the shul may have trouble getting a minyan, you can imagine how happy they were when I arrived sometimes as the 10th for a minyan . I've said Kaddish in wealthy mega shuls and storefront Chabads, in Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform congregations. I've found it moving and meaningful."
Seth Arkin of Skokie makes a point of visiting synagogues in disparate places, which helps him better appreciate the global interconnectivity of Judaism, and the culture beyond the religion. "Sadly, some of the most unique synagogues stand in places to commemorate Jewish communities that have largely perished," he said. His favorite synagogue was the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest. "It's the most beautiful synagogue I've ever seen," Arkin said.
"Whenever we travel abroad, we try and see at least one synagogue," said Jordan Shifrin. "Sometimes we can get a guided tour. We've been to synagogues in India, Morocco, Athens, Rome, Cairo, and more. Many have a wonderful story to tell. My favorite was the New Synagogue in Danzig, Poland. Rebuilt from the ashes of what was once a grand synagogue, there are a couple hundred Jews left. Our guide told us her life story and we believed she was born Jewish but was adopted."
"Since I'm Shomer Shabbat, I tend to stay near a Masorti synagogue," said Sandy Starkman of Highland Park. "My favorite experiences have been at two Masorti synagogues I frequent in Jerusalem. I've made friends in each place who warmly welcome me! When we were in Sacramento for a family simcha, my husband, Larry, read the haftorah on Shemini Atzeret. The next day, on Simchat Torah, the rabbi unrolled the Torah scroll and all 100-plus attendees participated. It was really very special."
"We had an uncle pass away in Boise, Idaho and it was our responsibility to provide him with a traditional Jewish burial," said Matt Pestine. "I googled 'Boise Jewish life' and found a Chabad rabbi who promised to take care of everything. When my son and I flew to Boise the next day, the Chabad rabbi had made all of the arrangements, even had someone sit with the body all night. That evening, we spent Shabbos dinner with the rabbi's family and about 15 other guests. Some were not even Jewish, but they told me they often stopped at a Chabad House because everyone was welcome. It was one of the warmest, sweetest Shabbat meals I've ever had."
Our Own Experiences
We recently attended Shabbat morning services in Anaheim, Calif. When they announced the Mourner's Kaddish, they suggested that if you're standing next to someone saying Kaddish, you should stand up, too, and support them. What a beautiful tradition.
At a liberal congregation in London's Golder's Green, we discovered that during the reading of the Megillah, they not only "boo" Haman, they also "yeah" for Esther and Mordechai. Yes, it made the Megillah reading infinitely longer, but afterward we were treated to hamantaschen and tea!
By visiting a synagogue when you travel, you'll learn about the local community, discover their local customs, and maybe even make a few new friends.
How to find a congregation abroad
• Reform Congregations, urj.org/congregations. For international locations, download the app at wupj.org/wupj-international .
• Conservative Congregations - uscj.org
• Orthodox Synagogues - ou.org/synagogue-finder
• Chabad - Chabad.org
Mira Temkin is a Highland Park-based travel journalist who writes about travel and theater. Follow her at miratemkintravel.com .