My husband and I planned a vacation which happened to fall over Yom Kippur this year. I realized we would be in Paris over the holiday and looked into the possibility of attending Kol Nidre services. By looking at MavenSearch.com I was able to identify every synagogue in Paris and picked a reformed congregation that claimed to do services in French and English. Voila! That looked perfect.
I emailed to ask about the possibility of attending and was told we would be most welcome. I needed to give them identifying information about us for security reasons, pay a fee of 250€ per person, and then they would tell me where the service would be held. My first reaction was sticker shock. $300 per person for services! I replied that I only wished to attend one evening as the following day I would not be able to attend due to our travel schedule and they lowered the price to $180 per person.
I thought of our small congregation at home in Vermont and how there are no dues, no tickets, and all are welcome. Our congregation relies completely on donations from the heart and a couple of annual fund raisers. Why the difference? I also thought about security and the need for a secret location. Paris has had more than its fair share of anti-Semitic violence in the last few years. It is so sad. The location of services on the most holy day of the year for observant Jews must be kept secret because of fear of attack.
Due to a combination of factors I decided not to finalize the arrangement to go to services. To tell you truth I wasn’t sure if the price, the fact that I would be jet lagged, or the idea of the difficulty of finding the location contributed the most to my decision.
The day before Yom Kippur we were touring Paris and made a stop at Notre Dame. We went through a cursory security screen as we entered the cathedral and I noted the difference in my mind. A secret location with vetting of my identity versus thousands of tourists entering daily with a quick glance into their handbags.
During my visit to Notre Dame I sat for a few minutes in the sanctuary and bowed my head. I silently said the Shema and thought about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, some things I am sorry for, and how I hope to be a better person this coming year. Maybe it is strange to silently utter the most essential prayer of Judaism in one of the most famous Catholic cathedrals of the world, but my belief is that if there is only one God then that God must be present in all places and accept prayers in all ways at all times.
We spent the rest of our day being tourists — a break at a sidewalk café, the Musée d’Orsay and Musée Rodin, the Tuileries Garden, the Arc de Triomphe, and of course a delicious dinner. Upon returning to our hotel there was a sign in the lobby — “Yom Yippur Reception.” The secret location for services was in the banquet room of our hotel! It was late and I assumed that services were well under way or possibly finished. I approached a security guard and asked if I could enter. His English was sparse and my French was non-existent. However, I persisted and explained I would like to attend the service. He asked if I wanted to pray and I assured him, yes, I would. He looked through my handbag and was going to let me in when a second security guard approached. He questioned who I was and I explained I was with a tour group staying at the hotel and would like to attend the service. He quickly turned me away. No, the service was not for tourists. I was disappointed but not surprised. My small prayer offered in the massive Cathedral of Notre Dame would have to suffice.