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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.

Abigail Pogrebin
August 27, 2013
Erik Mace
Erik Mace
Erik Mace
Erik Mace

High Holiday services are a slog. All right, not at every synagogue, not all the time, not for everybody. But it’s true widely and often enough that most of you are nodding to yourselves. Granted, services aren’t meant to entertain us every minute. But which of the 613 commandments prescribe boredom?

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which bring more Jews to services than any other time of year, let’s have a little candor about monotony in synagogue. Maybe if we acknowledge what we all know deep down to be true, we can figure out how to make services less listless for everybody. Wouldn’t that be a meaningful way to mark the New Year?

Rabbis are aware that detachment ranks as one of the alarming hurdles for Jewish continuity. Those of us who attend conferences about Jewish engagement (I’ve participated in several since writing my 2005 book, Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish) repeatedly listen to laments from Jewish leaders, particularly those in the Conservative and Reform movements, about synagogue indifference. The clergy know that although a significant swath of worshipers reliably show up for the High Holidays, a large number of them check out even while they’re still in their seats.

One prominent rabbi told me he wouldn’t attend his own services if he weren’t running them.

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 whose high-church timbre can be distancing. Many in the pews eagerly await the rabbi’s sermon because it’s likely the one respite from predictability. Yes, some people feel moved at moments, but for what proportion of the 15-to-18-hour marathon? Indeed, one prominent rabbi told me he wouldn’t attend his own services if he weren’t running them; another told me he brings a good novel.

So, here’s a public plea to clergy before this coming new year: Wake us up. The High Holidays are the perfect opportunity to excite congregants about worship the rest of the year, to show skeptics just how vibrant and relevant Judaism can be. If Yom Kippur gets the largest numbers through the door, shouldn’t services be interesting enough to make more people want to return—not just the following year but the following week?

I don’t suggest scrapping tradition or turning services into a circus act, but instead jarring us with illumination—insights that needn’t derail ritual but can deepen it. Remind us of what we’re reading; make us “turn it and turn it,” as the Talmud suggests about Torah. When we’re forced to think, we stay alert. When we learn something, we feel something.

Wouldn’t it be involving to explore, for instance, why we are absolved of sins we haven’t yet committed? Why the Days of Awe are as much about mortality as penitence? Why we’re only required to ask someone’s forgiveness three times before we’re off the hook?

Choose one line of liturgy and take it apart so we have to wrestle with what’s on the page.

Pause to source a Hebrew lyric, so we know why it’s been sung for centuries.

Pose a provocative question, such as why we cannot atone alone, what it really means to be pardoned, or why we celebrate a new year before repenting for the last one.

Don’t let us simply sit there while you go through the choreography. Look up from the prayer book and speak to us directly. Don’t worry so much about alienating the constituency that balks at innovation. Demand more of our self-examination and explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. You just might make more people eager to finish the marathon—with energy and enthusiasm to spare.

Of course, rabbis can’t fix this alone. We congregants bear equal responsibility for the lethargy of services. Abraham Joshua Heschel described us in his 1953 essay “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer”: “[P]eople who are otherwise sensitive, vibrant, arresting, sit there aloof, listless, lazy. … They recite the prayerbook as if it were last week’s newspaper. … Prayer must have life. … It must not be flattened to a ceremony, to an act of mere respect for tradition.”

On the High Holidays, large numbers of American Reform and Conservative Jews are inert spectators, expecting clergy to sprinkle atonement like fairy dust. Except for those raised with rigorous Jewish instruction (the Orthodox clearly operate in a separate sphere, often immersed from the womb in text), most of us have never taken the time to study the mahzor, nor could we explain the holidays’ origins. How many Jews do you know who could explain, for instance, how the shofar relates to the Binding of Isaac? Or how Yom Kippur connects directly to Mount Sinai? Some think it’s too late to learn, some can’t imagine how they’d find a teacher, many simply don’t rate it important enough to pursue. Most seem to rationalize the minimal investment, saying, “I bought my ticket, went to shul, confessed my mistakes, and vowed to do better. Dayenu.”

It’s no secret that many congregants cut corners on the holiest days of the year: Some arrive late on Rosh Hashanah morning because they don’t feel the need to be there at the start; some exit after the sermon because they’re ready for lunch. Some abbreviate Yom Kippur morning because they already gave two hours to Kol Nidre. Some consider the last service—Neilah—unmissable; others miss it to get to a break-fast that they’ve been dreaming about all day.

But what if this year we vowed to stay for every single hour? What if we made our experience deliberately more demanding—working harder to find resonance in the liturgy, reading in advance about the Unetanah Tokef prayer so it will mean something when we recite it during services? Before attending an opera, one reads the libretto. Before visiting another country, one dog-ears the guidebook. Why not prepare for synagogue in the same way.

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.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.