Like the MamaLand Empire!

Have you Liked the AliyahLand adventure?
      ...and sign up for weekly aliyah tips by email (it's free).

5 surprises when you go to shul in Israel (with a helpful vocabulary list!)


Considering it’s called the Holy Land, and considering that so many of us move here for religious reasons, I guess it’s strange that I haven’t said anything about going to shul before now.

When my sister was here visiting last year, she also mentioned that she’d been all over the place but hadn’t set foot in a shul.

Life in Israel is like that.

Are you wondering what shul will be like when you make aliyah?  Here are 5 things that may surprise you when you finally get there:

1.  It’s not called shul.

This may be obvious to you, but then, you’re probably smarter than me.  Smart enough to put two and two together and realize that Ashkenazim like me, and our quaint Yiddish expressions, are not in the majority here.  (Us Ashkenazim tend to see the world through Ashkenaz-coloured lenses.)

Shul here is known as בית כנסת / beit knesset.  Everybody calls it that – even Ashkenazim.

Which is another thing, by the way:  in Canada, I grew up thinking of the Jewish world as divided into Ashkenaz and Sefardi.  It turns out we’re the only ones who call them Sefardim.  Here in Israel, these “eastern” / southern Jews are better known as “eidot hamizrach,” or “mizrachi” (which means eastern, go figure).

But within that “Sefardi” realm, there are so many different types of – uh-oh – shuls.  Just within a couple of blocks of here are Moroccan, Tunisian and Yemenite shuls.  Whereas, since we’re a minority, Ashkenazim tend to have the local “Ashkenaz” shul, and not have as much of a choice.  We’re black and white; they’re a whole entire rainbow.

And the truth is, if you accidentally say shul, everybody will know what you’re talking about.  I don’t even think you’ll offend anybody.  But that’s not what they call it.

2.  Shul can be anywhere (and anytime).

Shuls are tucked away everywhere in Israel.  You might not see a building.  Heck, it might not even have a building.  Some shuls meet in schools, in homes, in converted storefronts.

When there isn’t a shul nearby, it’s possible that you may have a minyan anyway.  Like groups of soldiers who break off what they’re doing (unless it’s active combat!) to gather for mincha because somebody has a yahrzeit.  A friend just told us that when he used to commute to Tel Aviv for work, he’d catch the train and daven with the minyan there.  I believe it – I’ve seen that, too.

Can you spot the shul in this little KShmu strip mall???


(Hint:  it’s the one with the reddish awning – but there are no other outward signs that it’s anything other than a store.)

3.  Shul is (probably) not swanky.

This is sort of connected to #2.  Since shul can be anywhere, it doesn’t have to have a big fancy building.  Of course, this is true in North America as well, where I’ve davened in some pretty bare-bones places.

As it happens, there are a couple of “nice” shuls in the neighbourhood where we live.  By this I mean that they have separate, well-defined ladies’ sections, and a semblance of decoration.  Others are not so nice – just a bunch of chairs tossed into what is basically a room.  Most have air conditioning, which is all that counts.  (You have to be able to concentrate!)

But as with everything in Israel, don’t judge shuls from the outside.  I’ve peeked into some pretty hole-in-the-wall places, only to discover that they were actually kind of nice inside.

4.  It’s (usually) just a shul.

In North America, shuls can have lots and lots of other rooms:  classrooms, offices, social halls, you name it.  Here in Israel, you walk in and it’s shul – one room with one purpose.  There are no other rooms.  If you’re lucky, there will be a bathroom somewhere, but I’m not making any promises.

But then, that’s because shuls here have a slightly different role – or rather, they have their original, intended role.  Shul… is a place you go to daven.  Period. 

If you’re looking for a social hall, community centre, sports, school, or children’s activities, you may find those elsewhere, but you probably won’t find them in shul. 

At a time when shuls all over North America, including Orthodox ones, are racing to redefine themselves and make themselves “relevant” to young Jews, this is actually a pretty radical concept.

5.  Shul is faster.

I should have been prepared, but I wasn’t.  This is Israel, right?  And everybody speaks Hebrew… really, really fast.  Which means that, in general, they daven really fast.  Basically leaving us olim in the dust.

In my shul in Toronto, I could barely make it through Aleinu at the end of davening before they started Kaddish.  Here, I don’t stand a chance.

This can be annoying to us slowpoke North Americans – especially us baalei teshuvah, who have been taught that we should really take time with it, concentrate on the meaning of the words, not just say stuff by rote.  Yup, Israelis are saying stuff by rote.

It can also be a letdown if you come to shul hoping for some sort of drash or mussar or even just a few words on the parsha, and it turns out that it’s just davening – no frills added, and sermonizing is (in some shuls) considered a frill.

Prayer is something so many Israelis live with every minute of every day.  It’s coursing through their veins.  And I don’t just mean the ones who seem outwardly “religious.” 

Is their davening less worthy because they’re saying it superfast and from memory?  Especially if that means that they do it every single morning, no matter what?  I’m happy that that isn’t my call to make, but somehow, I think Hashem doesn’t mind.

On Shabbos, of course, the davening is a little longer, but only by Israeli standards. 

The shul we go to starts a little after eight and finishes by 10.  In fact, finishing by 10 is so important to them that on other days, like Rosh Hashanah, when the davening is longer, they actually push back the starting time so they can still finish by ten.

Which brings me to duchening / birkas kohanim / birkat kohaNEEM – whatever you call it.  In our shul in Toronto, this was a rare occurrence.  A few times a year, the kohanim get up on the bimah, spread their talleisim, and – as descendants of Aharon – bless everyone in the shul.

Here, they do it every single day.  And the davening is still faster.

Word to know to go to shul in Israel:

When I mean… In Israel, I say…
Shul בית כנסת / beit knesset
Davening תפילה / tefillah
Siddur (SIddur, theYiddish way) סידור / seeDOOR
Chumash (CHUmash, the Yiddish way) חומש / chuMASH
Tallis / Taleisim טלית – טליתות / tallit – tallitot (yes, in English, we do the Hebrew plural wrong… why???)
Good Shabbos שבת שלום / shabbat shalom
Yom Tov חג / chag
Duchening / Priestly blessing ברכת כוהנים / birkat kohaNEEM
Rabbi רב / rav
Kiddush um, no Kiddush?

Yup, that’s right… our shul has no Kiddush.  On our first Rosh Hashanah, I believe they had a small snacky offering in a separate room for the men before the shofar-blowing.

That’s not universal:  my husband spent some time davening in a Sefardi shul where he was fed generously and well every single Shabbos.  But in general, on Shabbat or Yom Tov, people are eager to leave after shul and not hang out longer than they have to.

In fact, nothing is universal.  No matter where you go in Israel, you’ll find shuls and minyanim of different kinds.  Some take longer, pay more attention to the words, or have a more musical davening.  We ate with people a few weeks ago who eat their Friday-night meal two hours after candlelighting because the husband loves davening with a nearby Sefardi minyan that likes to take its time. 

Others are bare-bones and just try to plow through things as fast as possible.

You may not find the perfect shul – right away or ever.  But maybe if you remember that just walking the 4 amos (amot / cubits) to get to shul has been called equivalent to all the mitzvos in the Torah, you’ll realize that it’s not as important here as it was before you made aliyah.

In Israel, you don’t need a special place to go to be Jewish.  Here, that place is all around you.

What differences have you noticed between shul here and shul there?  Which do you prefer?  Let me know in the Comments!

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה

[photo credit:  Roy Lindman via Wikimedia]


  1. I think all of your points there are the reasons I like shul (sorry, I still think of it as shul) better here in Israel than in Michigan (or Maryland, or Colorado, or Florida, or any of the other places I have davened).

    As you said, "It’s (usually) just a shul. ... this is actually a pretty radical concept."

    It's a good concept. I think North Americans can (Should? I dunno.) learn from it: Make shul get to the point, and pound that one point home, and maybe they'll find that it *is* more relevant.

    1. Michael, in general I totally agree with you. Sometimes I get nostalgic for the hand-holding, page-number-calling and psychologically oriented drashas we got in our super easy-going kiruv shul (The Village Shul) back in Toronto. But most of the time, I just remind myself that I'm there to daven, and they do that job very, very well here.

  2. that might be in some places in israel but tel aviv is a different. shuls are like the way it is in the USA. We have classes rooms,amazing new clean bathrooms,concerts,Kiddush with wine each friday night and saturday, community shabbat meals with around 220 people at each one with a standby list of additional 100 people. this article is from a different time in israel history. one thing that people still need to know a lot of shuls do not have Siddur, so people need to come with one. But the move in israel at this time is to have them so everyone can have the same book.the rabbis or another person can call out the page numbers like they do in the USA. Shuls and memberships is different in israel and the funding of them or the lack of funding to them in a jewish nation.

    1. This is interesting. I have never heard that about siddurs... in fact, I've been in some of the dumpiest, rundown storefront shuls and never found myself short of a siddur. But English speakers who don't know a lot of Hebrew - like my husband - would do well to shlep their own siddur and chumash anyway, because they won't find those in English in an Israeli shul. Thanks for stopping by! (Concerts, eh? I'm jealous!)

  3. I think it really depends where in Israel.....

    In Ramat Beit Shemesh shul is called shul, ashkenazim are the vast Majority, davening is slower than Chul, and the buildings are ppurpose built and grand
    Choose carefully where you want to live!

    1. Thanks, anonymous! I think you're right. I'm sending out this link with my weekly Aliyah Tips newsletter, and suggesting that people think about what the shuls are like in any community they're visiting.

  4. love the little glossary at the end :)

    1. Thanks! I was just thinking in terms of value added, and I don't like to translate as I go. :-)

    2. p.s. added you to my blogroll...


I'd love to hear what you have to say.