I’m interested in going to occasional Shabbat and holiday services, but since I have to wear business clothes on a regular basis for my job, I would prefer to be able to be comfortable on my days off. Dressing casually is a more accurate representation for me of restfulness and freedom, but I know it’s not the norm in most synagogues. What can I get away with in terms of casual clothing? Should I preempt people’s judgement by telling them I’ve made a conscious choice to dress down?
I have fond memories of picking out a new outfit every year for Rosh Hashana and Passover and wearing them proudly. Some schools and camps have the tradition for everyone to wear white on Shabbat. Many people I know have a concept of “Shabbat clothes,” that is, special outfits that are only worn on Shabbat and holidays. These special clothing choices demonstrate both a respect for the day and a respect for the person wearing them: “Check this out! I can dress up and look my best!”
I imagine that this concept understandably developed in a different era where people were laborers and farmers, workers who got dirty and stayed dirty. Dressing up for Shabbat and holidays was a radical differentiation from the rest of the week and either a special treat or at least an important way to show reverence. For people in today’s world who work in offices and wear suits regularly, dressing up for Shabbat at best loses some of its meaning and, like for you, at worst, makes people resentful and disassociated from Jewish community and practice because of these expectations.
The stated dress codes in most synagogues may only include expectations about head coverings, but the unstated dress codes may be hard to decipher and off-putting. You want to be comfortable physically, but you also want to be comfortable socially, and especially if you don’t know a community well, navigating these unspoken expectations can be very challenging.
As with anytime I advise people about finding a synagogue that’s a good fit for them, I suggest talking to people who go there. You can call the office and talk to a staff member or ask for an introduction to a congregant. You can show up on any given Shabbat dressed casually but respectably and see if you feel like you fit in enough based on those clothing choices. You can probably even look up pictures on their websites to see what level of formality the community conveys about itself.
Unspoken dress codes are likely to be more strict on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur than on the last days of Pesach, for example, so you could use this week to get a sense of how the “regulars” in a community are likely to dress. I also suggest checking out three or four different synagogues because the norms are likely to be very different from place to place.
After you’ve done a little homework, I think you have to find the confidence within yourself to know what works for you. It’s hard for me to imagine going to synagogue in sweatpants, but I don’t have the strict confines during the week that you do, so my needs are different. I hope that the people inside any synagogue you enter would be welcoming regardless of what you’re wearing, but if they’re not, it’s probably not the community for you anyway. When you get to know people, it’s fine to explain your clothes, but I wouldn’t lead with that. You may also want to make a small investment in “weekend” clothes that are nicer than jeans or sweatpants but more comfortable than your weekday suits. You can also dress up and remind yourself that services are only a couple of hours, and you’ll have the rest of the weekend for lounge wear if you choose.
I suspect that if any rabbi or board chair or membership director heard that people weren’t coming to their synagogue because they were afraid of being underdressed, they’d be pretty upset and want to push back against those fears. At the same time, expectations and appearances and norms run more deeply in communities than just the leadership. People may look at you strangely, but then those aren’t your people. It’s worth the investment in both your time and, potentially, your wardrobe to find something that works for you.