Orthodox in Seattle: What’s It Really Like?

This week I’ve told you a lot about the Orthodox Jewish community in Seattle. But what is it really like being Orthodox in Seattle? I first became a part of the Orthodox community in Seward Park back in March, so I hardly claim to be an expert but hopefully I can give a bit of fresh insight into what life is like.

The first time I walked into BCMH, I was terrified. My previous experiences with the Orthodox community in St. Louis were hardly promising: cold, judgmental, and forbidding. But I had grown dissatisfied first with the Reform (liberal) community where I converted in 2007 and then realized after a year in the Conservative (moderate) community that I would never feel truly Jewish unless I converted Orthodox (conservative), because that’s where my observance had been driving towards over the past four years.

So I worked up my nerve and walked in one Shabbos (the Jewish Sabbath, running from Friday night to Saturday afternoon). I remember nervously asking a man in the lobby where the siddurs (prayerbooks) were; he pointed upstairs. I’d never been in a shul (the Yiddish word for synagogue, used by Ashkenazi Jews) that seated men and women separately before, and quickly discovered BCMH seated women in a balcony above the men. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about this.

I was completely lost during the davening, or praying. It was all Hebrew and there was no transliteration (the mapping of Hebrew into English pronunciation), no people announcing the order of prayers, no sign displaying what page they were on. Prayer was almost completely silent and at your own pace, not all together like in my previous communities. I muddled my way through, occasionally recognizing a prayer recited by the chazzan, or prayer leader, and catching up. But mostly I was lost.

After davening ended, everyone heads downstairs for the kiddush, a light snack and social time. I stood up against a wall, completely terrified. I had attended the Reform community for over a year with the same dozen people every Shabbos and yet even by the time I left maybe one or two people said hello to me each week. I expected more of the same, despite the attendance being probably five or six times greater. Instead a woman walked up to me and invited me over to her house to lunch! I was shocked and delighted, and of course accepted. This lunch served as my introduction to Seward Park, and I instantly loved everyone I met and was eager to return.

Over time I began to pick up on davening, and now I can keep up easily. I have been invited by wonderful families to stay with them for Shabbos so that I can walk to shul instead of drive (a prohibited activity), and each week I learn more about the dynamics and history of the community. I’ve made friends, and even dated one of the popular single men (although we were forced to cut off contact as part of my conversion).

Being Orthodox isn’t easy. It’s hard going to Metblogs meetups and not being able to eat. It’s hard not being able to try new restaurants, a previous favorite pastime. It’s hard not using my Blackberry on Shabbos!

But I’ve also found remarkable rewards. I now feel part of a community, and feel more a part of that community each week. The practice of mitzvos, the Jewish ritual laws, enhance my life in a way I never expected. My life feels organized and spiritual for the first time. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure, and I can’t say I would encourage anyone to pursue it unless they were really committed to it. But it’s fascinating, challenging, and rewarding for me. For me, it works, and it’s worth it.

So that’s it for my little series on being Orthodox in Seattle. Questions? Ask away! I look forward to keeping you updated on what it’s like converting in Seattle as my conversion progresses.

2 Comments so far

  1. Daniel M. Perez (highmoon) on July 2nd, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

    It has been a good series, especially for me. I’m Orthodox, from Miami, and recently spent 10 days in Seattle. We did our research but even so, it was a bit challenging managing to keep halacha in the city (hotels with credit card keys on Shabbat are always a problem), though in general, we actually found it pretty easy, especially in the kosher dept, as having Bamboo Garden some 8 blocks from our hotel meant we always had a kosher dining option available.

    I am also a convert, so good luck on your conversion.

    It looks like my wife and I will want to move to Seattle, so the info here has been good in giving us starting points for our research. Thanks for that.


  2. Daniel M. Perez (highmoon) on July 2nd, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

    Question: How many mikvas are there in Seattle?



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