Why Do I Cry at Services?
The synagogue tears began in my childhood. Every Saturday morning of elementary school, I was awakened at what felt like the crack of dawn (in reality, 9 a.m.) by my parents telling me to put “something nice” on. With my eyes still glossy from sleep and my heart begging me to climb back under my cozy covers, I was instead dragged out of bed and into the car to services. My mom always used the same reasoning to curb my complaints: “You always enjoy it once you’re there.”
At first, as a child does, I tried my hardest to make sure she was wrong, that, in fact, I didn't enjoy the synagogue once I was there. I intentionally pinpointed my focus on the itchiness of my dress, the tightness of my shoes, and how hungry I was for a bagel. But then, prayer would begin. At my synagogue, the first of the morning prayers have pauses between lyrics to allow congregants to call out what they are thankful for. Typically, my family opts to recognize the joy of simply being at services. For me, it’s a time for both personal reflection on what I’m grateful for and a moment to relish in the happiness of the people around me, all celebrating life for different reasons.
It was also a time to notice the people I had grown to love, like the man I talked to each week who was about to turn ninety, but had a sense of humor like he was still sixteen. His wife, my other favorite, was a beautiful singer, with bright blue eyes and fuchsia lipstick. I took comfort in the regulars, but seeing new families brought a different kind of excitement to my mornings. Some had tiny children that played with the ends of their parents' tallit, others with stoic teenagers that seemed complex and fascinating beyond my comprehension. The rabbis moved around the room to greet congregants, breaking into smiles as people settled in. Each person brought their own love into the service, whether it was for the community, God, prayer, or a combination of all three.
With all the joy in the room, I didn’t understand why my eyes would begin to water. My mom was right (as usual). I did enjoy synagogue once I was there, so why was I crying? I relished the time to find personal meaning in prayer, read biblical stories, and chat with kind older ladies who complimented my Star of David necklaces or glittery suede shoes. Being at Shabbat services with my community had helped me notice how appreciative I was of the people who surrounded me. But no matter how much I tried to ignore it, I could feel my chest tighten with the promise of tears at every Shabbat service.
I couldn’t put the pieces together until a moment of clarity at Camp Tawonga, my Jewish sleepaway camp. In all my years of camp, the Shabbat services have been consistently stunning. With the camp located just outside of Yosemite Valley, the services are held under the tall redwood trees, their pine needle scent permeating the air. The sun peeks through the trees and as prayer goes on it stretches across the sky until it is shining down on us.
On my last morning of Shabbat services as a camper, I looked around at the other congregants. As we sang, the first-year campers fiddled with their paper siddurim, while the older kids tapped their feet to the familiar rhythm of prayer. The counselors stood, some kindly holding their campers’ hands and others excitedly attempting to convince their bunks to share something they were grateful for. Sitting on a boulder in the center of the outdoor space, I was quietly crying. This cry felt different, though. I had an epiphany as the tears came down, and it wasn’t because I heard God’s voice or saw a burning bush. While looking around at the community, the weight of love settled on me, and it overwhelmed my whole body. It dripped through the air so heavily that it felt tangible; I could grab it and stuff it in my pocket or save it as a bite to eat later. I realized that I was so grateful to be in an overwhelmingly loving place that I was crying tears of joy.
Love seems to be the driving factor of my emotional ties to Judaism, and it runs deeply through many facets of Jewish culture. In technical terms, the Torah commands the Jewish people to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18), and love the one God (Deuteronomy 6:5). Sermons in my community are often infused with tenderness to others, sometimes asking the congregation to put their time and care into putting others before themselves, or to pay attention to a specific cause. After the service, the platonic love shines the most, as people wish each other a Good Shabbos (or “happy Shabbat,” which I usually opt for), and head to grab bagels together for brunch.
In my experience, Jewish people love to love. Specifically, my community loves life, and every moment that comes with it. I have been taught to be grateful for everything from everyday occasions to big celebrations throughout my Jewish upbringing. As I count my blessings during prayer, I get choked up as I think about how much love I am surrounded by.
Why do I cry at services? To answer my own question, I cry because I am overwhelmed with gratitude that I am lucky enough to be around the love of a Jewish community.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Freedman, Sonia. "Why Do I Cry at Services?." 4 November 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 10, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/why-do-i-cry>.