The man was crying.
I didn't know him, and it seemed awkward to be sitting next to such an emotional stranger. He was a handsome guy in his 30s, with a successful, professional look, a well-tailored suit and a stylish haircut.
And it seemed a very public place to cry.
After all, we were in a crowded synagogue, on Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish calendar. A friend and I sat on the wooden pews in the beautiful sanctuary, filled to capacity on this important day, and settled in for the long service. As the rabbi spoke, I snuck a peek at the handsome stranger next to me. The man was listening intently, and he wept quietly, the broad shoulders of his Italian suit shaking. He caught me staring, and wiped his wet face.
I listened to the haunting, ancient music Jewish people have sung for thousands of years on Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — and thought about the man next to me. What had happened to him? What had brought this successful-looking man to sit and weep, all alone, in a synagogue in the middle of the afternoon?
I have cool political friends who are against any kind of organized religion. Silly, they say, a fairy tale, responsible for most of the wars in history, just a medieval way to impose moralistic beliefs on people.
But as I sat in the synagogue that Yom Kippur, I didn't agree with those friends. That day, I only saw the beauty. How fortunate we are to be able to worship any way we chose, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish. How alike we all are. Like the man sobbing next to me, how each of us seeks comfort and looks for answers and tries to find our way. I thought how magnificent it is that great houses of worship are built, that groups come together in love and friendship to lift their voices, and share what is truly the most shining part of the human spirit.
And I hoped the man sitting next to me found peace in the synagogue that day. I never saw him again, so I don't know.
But I hope he heard the graceful words of of the psalm of David:
"Give me strength for today and hope for tomorrow."
And on this Yom Kippur, that is my wish for all of us, no matter what religion you may be.
With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.
Richard Swerdlow teaches at Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School in San Francisco.