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Thursday, April 17, 2014

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Being an outsider on the High Holidays

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Daniel Held

Growing up as a regular shul-goer, I have always felt as though the High Holidays are an extension of the rest of the year. I went to the same shul, sat in the same seat, saw the same familiar faces and listened to the same rabbi. Comfortable in the environment, the liturgy and the service, I couldn’t conceive what it was like for the hundreds who were not regulars.

This year, my family and I arrived in Jerusalem a week before Rosh Hashanah. Deciding among synagogues is a challenge in any large community, especially in Jerusalem, where the options are virtually endless. So we did what any modern family would do, we crowdsourced – posting a message on Facebook looking for suggestions.

Our main priority was a kid-friendly synagogue. Last Rosh Hashanah our daughter was barely six months old.  She spent most of the service bundled up in a baby carrier napping, eating and listening to the melodies of tfillah. This year, with an energetic toddler who claps and dances to Shabbat morning tffilot, who steals others’ snacks, and who generally scurries around shul, we knew our needs would be different.

One shul percolated to the top of our crowdsourcing. We had heard of the shul, its reputation for a dynamic rabbi, a warm community, quality children’s programming and a good kiddush. We bought tickets.

The High Holidays are an opportunity for synagogues to shine and reach beyond their regular attendees, but they are also the most challenging times on the synagogue’s schedule. Expectations are raised, staff are pulled in multiple directions, the building operates at – and even beyond – capacity, and an influx of new people puts demands on the services provided by the synagogue.

Our experience on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur didn’t live up to expectations. 

The children’s programming was poor – at best. The space where the children’s services usually take place was usurped by an overflow adult service. Instead, a pair of teenagers were responsible for supervising children in the playground outside. The sanctuary was so crowded that there was no room for our daughter to sit with us – even during the short periods she was quiet. With so many new faces, the rabbi and congregants didn’t display the warmth and welcome we had been told to expect. Only a few of those sitting beside us – for many hours of services – introduced themselves and welcomed us. The sense of warmth for which the synagogue is known was hardly apparent.

Judging by the strong recommendations, I am convinced that on a regular Shabbat, the synagogue is warm, welcoming and has stellar youth programming. But on the days we attended, the shul fell victim to the particular challenges of the High Holidays. 

In the two months since Rosh Hashanah, we’ve been to many Jerusalem synagogues but haven’t been back to the shul we went to on the High Holidays.

I’m not used to being an outsider in synagogue. For regular services, I feel comfortable in both my regular shul and new synagogues. Being an outsider on Rosh Hashanah, however, taught me important lessons about the particular challenges and opportunities of the High Holidays.

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