There was a string of voices discussing the dilemma of “Should you go to High Holy Days Services this year or not?” posted on many Internet fora before Rosh Hashanah. I read some, some I skipped, but the subject eventually took me into a slightly different direction.

Yamim Noraim – The Days of Awe – are the time to become completely vulnerable, open to unfiltered experiencing in the safety of the community. It is too late for intellectual exercises, moral balancing and such – we had a month of Elul to take care of it, and traditionally we do a daily “balance sheet” during the Tachanun prayer (almost) every morning. What is left during the Ten Days is the very core of the experience – the irrational, the emotional, the spiritual, the poetic, the artistic, the beautiful, the awe-inducing, the mysterious, the “bigger than myself”, primordial and yet reborn in every moment… Everything that is uncomfortable for a modern American Jew, runs against our techno-rational-contemporary conditioning – that is what awaits us in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It requires of us to be able to swim in the river of poetry, rather than to dissect every word with a skeptic mind. To be a full-fledged participant, rather than an observer or a visitor.

To be brutally honest, but in NO way disrespectful – if you are a 3 (or – one or two) times a year visitor to a ritual environment of Jewish services, and you are walking into an experience that is designed to do what I just described, then I give you all the credit and kavod in the world for having made it! I am equally amazed we have so many people coming back year after year – still.  We should truly celebrate it, instead of whining about it, or making people feel guilty that they don’t come (and definitely NOT make them feel guilty that they DID come!).

In an incredibly simplified way, and assuming for a moment that we are speaking about someone who is not a Hebrew native, the High Holy Day enterprise can work for you, if;

  • you have done your homework/prep, and this is the “crowning” experience,
  • you understand what you are there for,
  • you understand what is happening in front of you,
  • you are invested into making it meaningful not only for yourself, but – most importantly – for others that are there with you – your community,
  • which brings me to the most important point – you have / are a part of /have grown into / this community.

The last point is the most important. If there is no community, it will not happen. For you, me, the gal / guy next to us. That’s why we will also need a minyan – 10 people – (I am not getting into how we are going to count it) to run a full service with ALL the prayers.

So – to go back to the questions that have been thrown around – should you or should you not go to the synagogue on High Holy Days (last chance, people, the gates are really closing at the end of Sukkot!) – my humble two cents are: I think we are all asking the wrong question. The crux of the issue is: do you have a community to experience the High Holy Days with? Or – even better: Is there a community that will make you feel like you are truly a part of it, where you can experience the High Holy Days? If you do, everything else will follow – either in its entirety, or in part, and grow over time.

This is the basis of the issue that is facing the American Jewish community and its funders – both the non-profit organizations and the private funders. We have spent years and years investing in a multitude of wonderful initiatives, programs, organizations, start-ups under the flag of “building identity.” Some of those initiatives worked, some did not, some evolved, some not and folded; some are doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. “Jewish identity” became the rallying cry – and not without justification. What has been missed, from my humble “wondering Jew” perspective, is the fact that unless the developed Jewish identity is surrounded with a rich soil of a well-functioning community that takes it in lovingly, envelops it, nurtures it properly to different stages of its growth, it will remain a lonely and vulnerable Jewish plant that will eventually wither, no matter how many resources we keep pouring into it.

The popular culture in the United States is highly individualistic. The communal ties came undone in late 50s and early 60s nationwide. The Jewish community should not leave the “community-building” aspect of its funding and programming and strategic decisions to chance or treat them as a “given” – nothing is given anymore. We need to re-learn HOW TO BE A COMMUNITY FIRST – beginning with the smallest scale, and then turn to identity. To give up the “country club” model of communal belonging we unintentionally and self-defeatedly developed in North America.   Those who understand this imperative are already successful, despite the many difficulties that the American Jews are facing as a whole. There are synagogues that in their search to respond better to the changing communal conditions began by looking in the mirror, asking themselves honest questions about the quality of the interpersonal relationships their members develop, how much they know about each other’s lives – their joys and their sorrows, etc. There are newly established models of “intentional communities”, “synagogues without walls”, where forming communal ties is the first step to engaging in a Jewish journey – a long, rich Jewish journey. There are smaller (and growing) organizations that begin with a single “just get them together”- type idea, chavurot, and many others.  And there is Chabad – everyone’s favorite boychik to beat up and blame. So let’s talk about Chabad for a moment.

In addition to being structured in the most up-to-date, cutting-edge way (a network-type organization, anyone?), which in itself should command healthy respect, given the fact that the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, laid these foundations in 1970s/1980s, Chabad has been continuously successful in encouraging fellow Jews to grow in their identity as members of Klal Yisrael – Community of Israel. Without pushing, without rushing, with acceptance, with “ahavat Yisrael” – love of a fellow Jew, open arms, full acceptance, lots of joy, singing, food, celebrations, deep spirituality permeating the everyday, creating a sense of warmth, sense of community. Also with clear halachic boundaries, but these are not treated as a fence you run into when you try to enter a Beit Chabad. When you speak with Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins, they talk about strengthening Jewish identity. They don’t mention the community either. They don’t need to. The community is a given – it’s there already, it’s presupposed, and you don’t have to speak about it. But this is EXACTLY what draws so many to Chabad in the first place! It’s the relationship with the rabbi-rabbetzin-their family-the group of people who are already around them, and who create the community of Beit Chabad!   The recently released study on Chabad on campus is a perfect confirmation of how effective this approach is, and it also confirms what Chabad has been saying for years: their success is measured in each little step taken by each Jewish person toward more Jewishness brought into their life, and not necessarily in how many new Chabadniks (not many!) they are going to gain as a result of their outreach efforts.

As I am currently travelling along different roads, different continents, celebrating with different communities, allow me to wish all of us that we be granted the wisdom of insight into responding to our communities in the way that allows each of their members find the place they can call their physical and spiritual home, feel the warmth of their neighbor’s embrace in time of sorrow or need, and feel the safety of the collective when the trouble gathers over the horizon. Most importantly – may we all have company to celebrate with joy and abandon!

Chag Sameach!