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For shul attire, how casual is too casual?
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For shul attire, how casual is too casual?

Rabbis want attendees to feel at home, but not ‘anything goes’

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

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It’s been years, if not decades, since liberal synagogues enforced a strict “business attire” dress code. While many men still prefer to come to services wearing jackets and ties, and many women favor modest skirts and dresses or dress slacks, the pews are as likely to be filled with men in open collar shirts and khakis and women in casual slacks and low-heeled shoes.

“It’s all good,” said Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, answering a reporter’s question about relaxed dress codes in synagogue. “We want people to feel comfortable. We want the synagogue to feel as if it were an extension of their home. Because it is.”

That seems to be the consensus among local rabbis answering an informal survey: With congregations eager to attract new members and retain old ones, the last thing they want to do is make proper dress an obstacle for attendance. 

But is there ever time when communities must draw the line? Or is it anything goes — whether jeans and a hoodie, a baseball uniform, or cocktail attire?

In the last three weeks, I’ve been to three b’nei mitzva services at three different synagogues. As usual, the choice of clothing by some of the teens, particularly the girls, was a topic of amused and sometimes aghast chatter. Short skirts and tight bodices that may look adorable in the windows of Forever 21 and H&M seemed less than appropriate for the sanctuary.

But the rabbis I talked to revealed that although some congregations would prefer to see people, young and old, dressed “appropriately,” and a few have issued written guidelines, there is little discussion of what that means, and even less about enforcement. 

“I can’t honestly say I know whether we are seeing inappropriate dress in synagogue,” Rabbi Steven Bayar of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn said diplomatically. “When someone comes up to me with such a question, my stock answer is, ‘I’m sorry, but I was too busy davening to notice.’ So I haven’t had anyone come up to me in many years.”

As far as girls’ and women’s clothing go, a handful of rabbis said they refused to be “the modesty or fashion police,” as Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield put it. Soon after he arrived 16 years ago, he nixed the practice of throwing shawls over the shoulders of women deemed immodestly attired.

A younger rabbi at the same synagogue, Rabbi Cecilia Beyer, put it in stark feminist terms.

“I have a problem with policies that ask a young 12- to 13-year-old girl to ‘throw a shawl’ on to cover her shoulders (and yes, I’ve seen a box of horrible acrylic-blend shawls for ushers to give these young women), because body shaming in our culture is rampant,” she wrote NJJN in an e-mail. “I don’t think it is helpful to shame a girl for wearing a sundress that might be acceptable in her church because of some strange idea that bare shoulders are bad in a synagogue. And yes, I watched an usher shame a particular young girl once with a shawl, and I watched her from the bima, in the back row with her friends, completely closed off, embarrassed, and miserable for the rest of the service.”

Beyer continued, “Our young women are constantly bombarded with conflicting messages that their bodies aren’t good enough while at the same time they need to show more of their bodies…. I think a synagogue, as a place of refuge, welcome, community, and comfort, should be the last place that a young woman should ever be made to feel ‘less-than’ because of her body or her clothing. I care about her spiritual and personal growth, not what she is wearing.” 

Some synagogues have adopted dress codes. But these generally respond to another issue: How casual is too casual? 

Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains adopted a dress guideline in 2007 that opens with the pointed idea that “sometimes we may not realize what is proper attire” and that “occasionally, it is useful for someone to tell us.” 

The main recommendation is for congregants to change clothes out of respect for Shabbat. “We, the people of Israel, are the groom joyfully coming to meet our bride, the Sabbath,” says the guide. Just as the dinner table is “dressed” for Shabbat, “So, too, should we change from our ordinary workday clothes into something special for Shabbat” to aid people to “get in the mood for something different.”

The standards the guide lays out are dependent on one’s role. “What is correct for sitting in the congregation might not be so for having a bima honor or for leading the service,” it reads. In the end, though, the emphasis is on flexibility and the good judgment of service attendees. As Rabbi Joel Abraham said, “If changing means not being able to come to services, just come as you are.” 

Some synagogues want teens and others to respect the synagogue and their fellow worshipers. “We do speak to our students about appropriate dress and what that means to different people,” said Rabbi Dan Cohen at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange. When teens read Torah during the High Holy Days, “we make it very clear to them that the solemnity of the day means deciding what to wear and then often going one step more conservative in their choices.” 

But he added, “We do not, however, want that to be a barrier to people showing up.” At other worship services, he said, “If it means coming from work, great. If it means coming from the ballfield, great. Just be there.”

Rabbi George Nudell of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains reported a significant increase in Friday night attendance — from 15-20 regulars to 40-50 — after the synagogue implemented a more relaxed approach about seven years ago. Although they never detailed what that means, he said, the synagogue’s leaders do hope for “a step above jeans.” 

At the Jewish Center of Northwest NJ in Washington, first-year religious leader Rabbi Andy Dubin would prefer to allow jeans, he said, but the ritual committee disagrees. It’s not a fight he wants to have this early in his tenure.

But people are expected to wear their favorite jeans at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim’s occasional “Java-N-Jeans” alternate Shabbat service (the next one is Dec. 26). “People have enough difficulty connecting with the prayers,” said the Cranford congregation’s Rabbi Ben Goldstein. “To ask them to dress in clothing that feels artificial is creating yet another obstacle to people attending and enjoying services.” 

At Bnai Keshet in Montclair, Rabbi Elliott Tepperman specifically embraced jeans, even for b’nei mitzva services (with parental consent), once he learned that more formal clothing on these occasions was chasing away regulars. 

And yet even with relaxed dress codes, the occasional teen or adult still shows up in an outfit others might consider inappropriate.

When they do, Nudell’s advice is to leave it alone. “We don’t make a fuss about it,” he said. “I’ll bet they soon realize they have come to a very traditional service and aren’t dressed appropriately. Hopefully, they will make better choices next visit. I don’t chalk that up to disrespect on their part, just unfamiliarity with what shul is all about.”

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