With the High Holidays – Where do I Begin?

By Shayna Punam

Where do I begin?

Let me start with this. This is only my opinion. I am only one person. And what I have to say may not sit well with many people. Most would never write such an article. But I feel compelled to share. We just completed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I am frustrated. Upset. Saddened. All at a time when I should be revitalized and inspired (thank goodness Sukkot is here).

I am a Jewish communal professional. I have devoted my professional life to working on behalf of the Jewish community. Moreover, I am a committed and involved Jew who wants to see our people prosper in generations to come. But after my experiences at the High Holidays – I worry.

I know this will sound like generalities and be quite unfair. Every experience is different. I am not speaking for everyone – just sharing my own experience at High Holiday services this year.

First, where was everyone? I know, attendance will be different by synagogue, city, region, but it felt far less crowded this year than in the past – especially fewer children. And, forget the attendance on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, at my Conservative synagogue where were the people the second day? And what about Yom Kippur? I felt the synagogue was 80% full. It is funny to think that in my youth everyone believed that “all Jews” went to synagogue on the High Holidays. We know that was not necessarily true, but the sentiment was this was the moment when rabbis had their greatest attendance and shared their gospel with the masses. (Remember the days when rabbis gave the guilt trip about coming to synagogue more often?) Well, those masses feel smaller. In fact, I wonder what percent of American Jewry attend High Holiday services, especially outside the Orthodox community?

I believe we are seeing a major transition. The Reform synagogues feel full (at least my friends tell me that) while the Conservative synagogues feel less full. Sure, part of this is the loss of membership in the Conservative movement. But I also believe that the fuller pews in Reform synagogues are perhaps those who left Conservative synagogues for Reform synagogues and feel an obligation to go. So, that makes me wonder – since the Reform synagogue buildings themselves are not growing in square footage and were full in the past, how many who grew up in Reform synagogues do not attend at all or are now part of the growing “nones?”

Services last way too long. I know, it sounds silly and childish. And we are there for a reason. But, apparently having a siddur/mahzor requires the cantor to read every page. And since we all get a seat (and the empty one next to us) apparently we can just stay all day. If I was only inspired and engaged the time would fly by.

A friend of mine grew up in a synagogue that did not have a full-time cantor. Instead, each year they would hire a cantor for the holidays. I have tremendous appreciation for the knowledge and talents of cantors, but get frustrated by what I perceive to be “the show.” At a time when I am to be most spiritual and involved in my own introspection through prayer and ritual I am left to be only a spectator. Sure I know much of the traditional liturgy – by rote (see what happens when you go year after year) – but certainly not the meaning. How about instead of a solo cantorial concert I get a participatory service?

And the rabbi? What is his/her role during the High Holidays? All I heard the rabbi say this year was what page we are on since many cannot follow the cantor? I know, the big moment is their sermon (see below). How about you engage me? Challenge me to think and to reflect on what I am saying and why I am saying it. I want to learn and grow – not listen.

So, I wonder, what is the clergy doing to “spark” me? Of course you will hear from many in the congregation about how wonderful you are and how much they enjoy services, but how about doing a poll of your entire congregation? All I ever hear about services are whether they lasted too long or if the rabbi’s sermon was interesting, or more commonly, too long. All those weeks of preparation, yet you still do not realize that people tune you out in 8 minutes. When will you learn that to inspire people does not take 35 minutes?

Beyond my feelings, this post really comes from the eyes, ears and minds of my children. Each sitting in synagogue (even at the family service) looking bored and asking “when will it be over.” I worry about them. I can keep taking them to synagogue each year and watch them have a negative experience. If that is the case, then why would they want to come back as an adult? High Holidays used to be an important (mandatory?) part of one’s Jewish calendar. But like being Jewish itself – High Holiday services are now seemingly a choice.

I must acknowledge that there are ways to engage people during the High Holidays outside of mainstream/traditional synagogues and people may have a more positive experience. That is great. But, realistically, the vast majority of Jews who celebrate/observe the holidays will do so through a main line synagogue.

As I said at the opening, I am just one voice. Perhaps you will tell me a cruel voice. But am I so far askew from the masses? So take what I have to say or leave it … not my issue … but it is your/our issue when future generations have fewer and fewer people participating in synagogue life because of what they are experiencing today.