How to Dress to Attend a Synagogue
People attending synagogues in the tend to dress conservatively, although the precise level of formality varies by denomination and geographic location. The New York area and other northern cities tend to be more formal, while southern cities and California tend to be slightly more casual (although still neat and put-together looking).
Some general guidelines:
- At the most basic, you won't go wrong with knee-length or longer skirts for women and suits or dress shirts and pants for men.
- Even if your synagogue has a casual vibe, you should dress neatly and look nice. Shorts and T-shirts are usually not acceptable; although no one will ask you to leave, you will feel uncomfortably underdressed.
- Men must wear a kippah (yarmulke) in a synagogue, even if they are not Jewish. (Some old school Reform temples do not require this; you'll notice one way or the other when you walk in.)
- Married women usually cover their hair in Orthodox synagogues. In Conservative synagogues, wearing a lacy headcovering or a kippah is generally optional.
- Makeup and jewelry are common, as are high heels and dressy flats. In northern cities, pantyhose and closed shoes are the norm, while southern cities often accept bare legs and open shoes. (If trying a synagogue for the first time, dress on the more conservative side.)
- Non-Jews should not wear a tallit (prayer shawl).
Read on for more details.
Typical Clothing in Different Types of Synagogues
Varies by congregation, but Reform temples tend to be more casual. Business casual attire (blouse and trousers or a casual dress) is fine. You may want to go dressier for a special occasion.
Varies by congregation, but most are more casual. Sport shirts and chinos may be fine for a regular service, with dressier outfits (suits and ties) reserved for special occasions.
Other liberal (Reconstructionist, non-denominational)
Varies by congregation; most have no modesty requirements, but people should look neat and well-dressed.
Varies by congregation, but people should look neat and well-dressed.
Knees and shoulders should be covered; a sweater or jacket over a sleeveless dress is acceptable. Dressy pants are becoming more widespread, but it varies by synagogue.
In the New York area and other northern cities, wear a suit. Elsewhere, a sportcoat or even just a dress shirt and pants is acceptable.
Elbows and knees must be covered; skirts only (no pants). Orthodox synagogues, especially in northern cities, tend to be quite formal, so dressy skirt suits are a good option. Married women cover their hair, often with a hat that matches their outfit.
A suit is a safe bet; in some synagogues men dress Israeli-style in the summer (dress shirt and pants).
As covered as possible: ankle-length skirts and tops covering from wrist to collarbone are preferable. You must cover your hair with a wig, scarf, or hat.
Hasidic men usually wear the "uniform" of their particular denomination (often a special type of black suit and hat). If you're a guest, wear a dark suit and white shirt.
Synagogue Attire for Children
Most people dress babies for comfort, not fashion, when taking them to synagogue. But once those little babies are up and walking around, you've got some decisions to make.
- Girls: You can't go wrong with frilly dresses. (And little tights! And shiny shoes! And hair bows!) Young girls are not bound by modesty requirements to the same degree as adults, so if there's a short-sleeved dress your daughter absolutely loves, it will likely be fine even at an Orthodox service. If you're not sure, bring along a cute cardigan in case. (Synagogues tend to be highly air-conditioned, anyway.) Casual dresses (cotton knit) are okay, too, as long as they are not stained, stretched out, or otherwise unattractive.
- Boys: From toddlerhood on, you can find adorable four-piece dress outfits for boys in department stores. These outfits include a shirt, vest, tie, and pants. You'll never go wrong dressing up! Some boys hate clip-on ties, but the outfits still look cute with the vest and an open-collar shirt. If you know for a fact that the synagogue you're going to is more casual, put your son in a button-down shirt or clean polo shirt, chinos, and a belt. (School uniform pants work well.) Soccer uniforms or athletic clothes are not appropriate; if you must come straight from practice, bring a change of clothes in the car. Boys don't need to wear a formal suit to synagogue until bar mitzvah age. Dress shoes are nice if you're regular synagogue-goers, but if not a clean pair of loafers or other casual shoes are fine.
What to Wear to a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah Service
So you've been invited to a bar or bat mitzvah, and you don't know what to wear to the service. The answer is simple: wear the same type of clothes that would be appropriate for any other synagogue service.
Girls have a tricky line to walk to look cute and on trend, and not like a dowdy grandmother or a little girl. Plan your outfit carefully, keeping in mind the denomination of the synagogue and your geographical location (you may be able to wear your favorite sundress with a light sweater over it at a Reform bat mitzvah in November in Florida, but you'd look pretty strange at an Orthodox service in New York). Even if the party is immediately after the service (which is sometimes the case in Reform and Conservative synagogues), resist the temptation to wear a strapless party dress or form-fitting cocktail dress. You can wear cute, trendy clothes that fulfill basic modesty requirements (and if you absolutely MUST have a sparkly dress for the party, keep it in the car and change after you leave the synagogue).
Things you should NEVER wear to synagogue:
- strapless dresses
- strappy tops that show your bra or a lot of cleavage
- miniskirts more than three inches above the knee
- super-high heels that you can't stand in easily (you can't take your shoes off in shul the way you might on the dance floor)
Boys have it a little easier, as usual: either a suit or a dress shirt, pants, and tie combo is fine. Dress shoes are strongly preferred, but people do understand that 13-year-old boys sometimes wake up unable to fit into the dress shoes that were fine last week, so more casual shoes may be overlooked. Don't forget to wear a kippah (yarmulke) during the service — this rule applies to Jews and non-Jews alike.
How to Dress for Shul in Israel
If you're visiting Israel, you will have noticed that religiously observant Jews dress modestly all the time. Going to shul is no exception: women should cover their heads with scarves or decorative hats (sometimes both, depending on local custom and denomination). Ankle-length skirts and long-sleeved or 3/4-sleeved shirts are the rule. (Israeli girls and young women wear cute, trendy tops, but wear a thin, fitted shirt layered underneath to comply with modesty regulations.)
For men, dress is less formal than in the US, but more rigid: a short-sleeved white shirt, open at the neck, and black pants is almost a uniform. Don't wear a suit to synagogue in Israel; aside from being much too warm, you'll look very out of place!