Breathing Pressurized Air

Being a congregational rabbi during the High Holidays is an experience in pressure unlike anything else that occurs during the course of a Jewish year. Jews you never knew were in your neighborhood (and some you did) seem to come out of the woodwork and find their way into synagogue services, sometimes changing the nature of the congregation entirely. Often, just to make their presence known, they decide that this might be the right time to get to know the rabbi. What results is that, at the very busiest time of the year, there is an unusual increase of the volume of phone calls and e-mails. “Rabbi, I’ll only take a few minutes of your time…” Or, “Rabbi, I know you’re busy, but could you check and see if you’re free two years from now on March 15 to do my daughter’s wedding?” Hmmm… maybe this could wait a week or two.

Why exactly this is the case- and it surely is- would make for a great study on the psychology of religion, and it surely is too complex a subject for a blog like this. But this much is for sure, regardless of the reasons. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur exert an extraordinary gravitational pull on Jews of all types. And because of that, the challenge of deciding what to speak about on the high holidays is a challenge that has long engaged rabbinic imaginations.

Think about it. What would you say to someone if you knew that had two or three chances to really impact his life for the better, and bring him closer to his religious community? You might see him again, you might not, but while he’s (or she’s, of course) in your presence, you know you’ll have his attention, and he’ll be listening intently. Chances are that, if you’re really going to grab him, it’ll be in the first five or so minutes of your talk. What do you say? How do you start? With a joke? A story? The price of failing is potentially greater than you might want to consider. Lives are at stake. Destinies are at stake. Families are at stake. What do you say?

Ah, the questions of the ages; we rabbis love to talk about this among ourselves. What makes it fascinating and even more difficult is that, as often as not, we actually have things we’d like to say, but either the sentiments are likely to cause more grief than they’re worth, or they’re not deemed gripping or topical enough to address that first set of questions.

And, of course, the Jewish philanthropic world being what it is, just about every Jewish organization that raises money amps up the pressure on rabbis to conduct appeals for their cause, or at least speak about them, or hand out leaflets for them, or place them in the pews, or in the mahzorim… And if you don’t do it, it’s hard not to feel as if you’re in some way failing the Jewish people, or at least those causes. But consider the other side… all those Jews who never set foot in a synagogue finally walk in, and the first thing that happens is that they encounter a tsunami of fundraising. I am not talking about fundraising for the synagogue itself.

One very justifiable wave does not a tsunami make. But it can’t be too big a turn-on to find yourself sucked into the vortex of the most philanthropically organized community in the history of the world.

And that can happen before we rabbis have even opened our mouths!

I have lots more to say about this subject, but actually, I haven’t finished writing for Yom Kippur….

Shanah tovah and G’mar Tov to you all!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.