In one week, Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – will call to the thirteen million Jews around the world. This holiday – and Yom Kippur that falls one week later – will cause more Jews to show up in synagogue than any other day in the entire year. Now, this fact may surprise those of other faiths, but it’s true. Most Jews are not members of a synagogue and most don’t engage in any form of regular communal prayer.
So, why do they go these “three days a year”? Maybe they’re motivated by tradition; maybe by guilt; maybe by a genuine desire to give thanks, to be spiritual, or to turn over a new leaf. Maybe they want to connect with God or their people. Or maybe they are eager to visit their awesome brother-the-rabbi and who inspires them (at least that’s my reason!).
A better question, however, is why DON’T Jews attend synagogue – either during the High Holy Days or during the year? According to Tablet online, maybe it’s because services – more often than not – are boring. They can be long, repetitive, monotone, and difficult to understand or relate to. The article claims that, “The rabbis themselves bear much of the responsibility. Year after unchanging year, they guide their flocks through the long hours of often-stilted liturgy without explaining what’s being recited, how it’s relevant, or where a segment begins or ends. Congregants turn page after page, parroting passages aloud as instructed, sitting and standing (and standing … and standing)—with few people knowing why. One chant runs into the next, often sung by a polished-but-formal choir [or cantor] whose high-church timbre can be distancing.” Sound like fun? A good way to spend a day – or two or three?
While I hate to generalize, the majority of synagogues (as business models) and their religious services (as the products) are not adequately meeting the needs of most Jews (current or prospective customers). And, as a result, people are not joining or remaining loyal. They become distracted, disinterested, detached, disengaged…and they become “unaffiliated.” The rabbis and synagogue lay leaders who understand these sentiments, overcome internal politics and inertia, and are doing things to promote real change are far and few in between. But, they are out there; they are the renegade rock stars.
I confess that, despite my personal struggles and challenges with the current state of organized synagogue life, I remain optimistic. The Jewish community at large offers numerous possibilities for individuals to express their Judaism and develop positive Jewish identities. Through Jewish values, home rituals, arts and culture, food, mysticism, spirituality, literature, education, overnight camping, trips to Israel, etc. there are a myriad of ways to happily be and live Jewishly. The synagogue and its programs and services simply are another vehicle to enrich that goal.
So, with the Holidays rapidly approaching, how can you prepare in advance to make this time special and meaningful for you and your family? In the way that the Passover Haggadah can engage the very young and the very old, through stories and rituals and food, you can create the same type of experience for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To do so, I suggest you set some goals, do some research, acquire some materials, and develop a plan. Begin by answering some questions.
- Where in the Bible do we first hear about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
- What are their other names and what do they mean?
- What is the essence of each holiday and how do they relate to each other?
- Why are we commanded to celebrate and/or observe them?
- What are the various rituals and customs that go along with each?
- What are we supposed to learn from these observances and practices?
- How are they relevant in the life we live today?
- As we learn about these holidays, how can we be better and do better this year?
This is a possible way to start. The rest is up to you. Of course, you always can buy your tickets and go to synagogue…