People of all faiths gather at the table

When I explained my Friday night plans to close friends, I got puzzled looks and excited questions.

“Really? That sounds awesome!” “What is a Shabbat service?” “Why are you going?”

Honestly, these are questions that I am still sorting out for myself.

Last Friday night, I attended a Shabbat service at a local synagogue. While I have wanted to attend for a while now, I never had enough courage to actually do anything about it. As I looked over my weekend schedule full of homework, I decided I would never have enough time or courage. I just needed to go.

I gathered some friends together and we decided to attend a Shabbat service at Temple Shalom, a local Reform synagogue. It was not what I expected, but at the same time, it was everything that I needed, especially for the first time attending a different faith service.

Everyone my friends and I met was friendly and kind. As we took our seats, they informed us that they were conducting a mini-workshop titled “Exploring your religious roots and transformations.”

People of every age and background went around the room, sharing their religious upbringing and current traditions and practices. I smiled at the eagerness of the youngest participant, a seven-year-old girl, whose levels of piety and energy I desire to have someday.

My partner in the discussion, Yahelle, shared about working as an intern at the synagogue and about her parents, who are immigrants from Israel. We shared our different college experiences and connected over weird and confusing college traditions that, for some reason, always involve dance competitions.

Since I was learning the differences between Reform and Orthodox Judaism, I was delighted to finally learn about Judaism in a non-Christian context. The warmth of the members’ explanations and desire to answer our questions helped me feel at home. I can’t wait to return.

Still, why did I want to attend a Shabbat service?

I grew up in your typical American conservative Christian home, which always spoke of supporting Israel, the importance of the Old Testament and honoring God’s people. However, I knew next to nothing about Judaism (I still know very little).

One of the first friends I made at college grew up attending a Messianic synagogue. I found her stories and traditions fascinating. Getting to know her and her family’s faith inspired me.

As I began studying more and more about the Holocaust and the history of the Jewish nation on an international scale, I found myself becoming passionate about fighting anti-Semitism and bringing more Jewish voices into my daily readings and research.

The tip of the iceberg came this week at John Brown University’s diversity symposium on interfaith dialogues. As the faith editor for the Threefold, I was pumped to see students and faculty gather to hear from researchers on global religions, the Imam and the public relations specialist of a local Islamic center and the head priest of a local Hindu temple.

Whenever I spoke of the absence of a Jewish faith leader, confused looks met me. Why should I care when I’m not Jewish? Isn’t the school heading in the right direction? Can’t it wait until next year’s symposium?

Absolutely, I’m so glad that we are moving in this direction. At the same time, I’d rather not wait. That’s when I learned that there is only so much you can expect to learn from on-campus opportunities. There comes a point when you have to pursue the experiences on your own – even the nerve-wracking ones, like engaging with people of other faiths.

I think Christians find it hard to enter into interfaith dialogue for many reasons, but here are three that I experienced at the Shabbat service:

We expect it will be a dramatic, life-changing experience.

We are afraid of being uncomfortable.

We are scared of being inadequate.

For some reason, I always pictured attending a service of another faith as being some sort of dramatic experience, and I assume a lot of others do as well. Growing up, what little I did learn about other religions was always tinged with the fear that I would convert. Perhaps participating in another religious practice would lead to me question my faith. (Side note: I think we all should question our faith, at least once. It’s healthy!)

But at the synagogue, I didn’t feel any of that. There was no mention of conversion. They didn’t badger me with questions about what I believed. It was a conversation. Now, I will admit, it was an uncomfortable conversation. I could definitely feel the awkwardness in the room, but at the same time, everyone was in the same boat – uncomfortable, but willing to learn, willing to listen.

I found my explanations and memories of what I believed suddenly shallow and thrown together. As a Baptist, there is not much of a tradition to speak of outside baptism, communion and candlelight.

But in a room full of grace, I didn’t have to have it all together. I didn’t have to know the right answers. I needed my ears more than my mouth – that’s what all dialogues need.

As we gathered around the challah, wine and grape juice, it was awkward, but it was real. It was people gathering to learn from Scripture and from one another. It was people gathered to share.

Maybe that’s what interfaith dialogue really is – a meal.

So why don’t you come to the table? I’ll save you a seat.