Why It Doesn’t Really Matter What You Wear to Temple

Torso of a person wearing a dark blue suit jacket, white collared shirt, and striped tie
Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

The Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are approaching, and, like me, you might be staring at your pre-teen’s closet thinking, “This kid has nothing appropriate to wear.”

I advise you to stop worrying about it.

For 8 years, I worked with Jewish college students, and I heard far too many stories like these: I tried to go to Shabbat dinner, but I got there and noticed all the other guys were wearing yarmulkes and I wasn’t, so I turned around and walked out. I showed up wearing a knee-length skirt and everyone gave me the side eye because I didn’t look “modest” enough. My studio art class ends right before services begin, and I don’t ever have time to go back to my dorm and change into something dressier, so…

Minhag hamakom, the custom of a place, does matter, and I understand that some Jewish institutions carry particular dress codes. But I am a Reform Jew, a feminist, a queer person, a parent, and a rabbi, and when it comes to how anyone “should” dress to observe the High Holy Days, there are values that matter much more to me than what’s “appropriate.” Like presence. Like community. Like inclusion. Like belonging.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called Yamim Noraim, The Days of Awe. They are not The Days of Impressing Your Peers, or The Days of Pleasing Your Parents, or The Days of Conforming to A Cultural Notion of “Dressiness.” I do find it personally meaningful to wear a pleasant dress to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, but it’s always something that makes me feel like… myself. I don’t wear a costume: I save that for Purim. I don’t try to hide the shape of my body or avoid possible judgmental comments. (Anyway, I’ve never worn any length of skirt that didn’t prompt at least one person to blurt out, “That skirt seems short for a rabbi!”).

What is the message we fear sending if our children don’t wear an ankle-length dress or a suit and tie to shul or Temple or synagogue this year? Is it that we fear the community will think they, or we, don’t care? don’t respect Judaism? don’t respect the temple itself, or the rabbi, or God?

I’ve always taught my children not to judge others by their appearance. After all, maybe that person is wearing gym clothes to synagogue because they were running late…

Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi (she/her)

queer belonging. sex positivity. creative ritual. inclusive judaism.