High Holiday Services Are Boring. Here’s How We Can Fix Them.
Rabbis and congregants alike have made synagogue dull. But together we can make it more meaningful and more compelling.
When I talked to writer Leon Wieseltier for Stars of David, I told him that many of the public figures I’d interviewed said they were turned off by the amount of time Jewish worship requires. “That is a miserable excuse,” he scoffed. “We’re talking about people who can learn a backhand in a month, learn a foreign language in a summer, and build a summer house in a winter. Time has nothing to do with it. Desire, or the lack of it, has everything to do with it. … You have to want to be turned on.”
I admit I got “turned on” when I began to study Torah in my thirties to make up for my lack of childhood Hebrew school, and before I knew it, one class led to the next, and I became a belated bat mitzvah, at age 40. In the eight years since, I’ve been part of a monthly Torah study group; sought seminars at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Limmud NY, and Mechon Hadar; and been involved in Central Synagogue, which is constantly reimagining worship and enjoys a packed house on Friday nights. I remember how hard it was to make the initial leap to Jewish learning, and I understand the resistance of friends who say they can’t make the time. But I’ve also seen how a little exploration opens a world of connection and how spending the whole day in synagogue gets a whole lot more absorbing with a little more background.
If this year, rabbis do more to engage their congregants, and if we view ourselves as active participants rather than passive guests, the High Holiday epic might not feel so eternal anymore.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 39, co-founder of the independent Upper West Side seminary Mechon Hadar, recounts in his book Empowered Judaism that he chose to create a new prayer community because he believed it was possible to have one’s experience be “so positive that you don’t even feel tempted to look at your watch.” How much sweeter could this New Year be, how much more profound our penance, if rabbis choose to rethink business as usual and if we congregants do a little homework. More Jews might fall in love with Judaism and actually forget the time.
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