On Being — The Hardest High Holidays Yet

This year, 5776 in the Jewish calendar, during the epicenter of Judaism’s penitential season, the holy of holies of Jewish time, when even the least committed Jews are found to be in shul, I was absent. For the most part, I’ve embraced this time of intense soul-searching, self-introspection and self-judgment, within the boundaries of familiar and shared Jewish sacred space — the synagogue. And to be accurate, I’ve been absent many times before. But this year felt different.

At first, I couldn’t understand this at all. I was sure that removing myself from a day of fasting, days of intense prayer, and confession, would be profoundly liberating. Everybody skips out every now and again right? Regardless, my experience was quite the opposite. On the streets of New York City, I found myself on edge and irascible every time I walked by families walking to and from shul. Every email or text that said, “good yuntuf,” or “l’shana tovah,” or “have an easy fast,” only exasperated my feelings of resentment and shame. I kept thinking to myself that I should have just paid the hundreds of dollars to go to shul. Or maybe I should have gone to pray up at the storefront on 66th street and 3rd Avenue that had just transitioned from a retail swimwear shop. Or maybe I just should have taken my friend up on his offer to give me his extra ticket. Of course I already knew that the options were endless, and yet I still did nothing.

It wasn’t until a recent meeting with my friend and rabbi that I fully understood what might potentially be going on here. As I explained to her what had happened this year, she said, “maybe by opting out, you were actually opting in?” Confused, I said, “Excuse me?” “Opting in? To what exactly?” As soon as I said that, in that moment, I understood the potential of what “opting in” could mean. I realized that “opting in” required much more of me. That a set of new circumstances will be the garden where the new potential will be sewn.

During this year’s High Holy Days, I’m experiencing a true evolution of family life. In fact, I’m building a new family. Not only am I getting married in November 2015, to the love of my life, but my mother is engaged to be married in early 2016 — a phenomenal blessing that she wrote about in early August 2015 in an article, ironically called, Go to Shul, in eJewish Philanthropy. I really need to listen to her more! At the same time, my brother is on assignment in Beirut, Lebanon and my father is across the country in Los Angeles, California beginning to build his own new traditions. Gone are the days where we might all be together. Gone are the days where I might get to sit next to Dad in Shul, fiddle with his tzitzit and be comforted by a father’s aroma. Gone are the days where I might travel to Baltimore to be with my extended family.

All of this is to say that this year was the first time that I and my soon-to-be-wife had to chart our own path. Where we had to discuss our practices together. It was the first time that we had to ask ourselves, “What do we want out of this?” Forgetting for a second our own inherited family rituals and customs; we had to ask, “What do we want our traditions to be?” “How is our new family going to do this?”

Without a doubt, these are challenging questions. And because the answers are an evolving experience, we may not have the answers in time for next year. But reflecting on these hard choices — those that give us a sense of personal and communal identity and responsibility — is an emotionally demanding experience, one that I know will help us and the Jewish community emerge with a greater sense of purification. At the same time, I came to realize that no matter what we do, inside or outside of shul, it must bring us joy. And I must feel authentic in it. I must feel fulfilled and satisfied.

To that end, one of my best friends happened to send me a stack of articles this year from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in which he reminds us that, “Atonement, the capacity for honest self criticism, is what allows us to weather the storm without losing our way.”

Maybe next year I’ll go to shul. Maybe not. Perhaps, as this new family moves forward, we might help the next generation grow and seed a subculture of authenticity on being of faith. And therefore, the choice of going to shul might just be minute.

Either way, I think it will be the most challenging time of the year.

About the Author
Noah S. Bernstein is a Program Officer at the New World Foundation in New York City, a longstanding civil rights and social justice organization built to foster a more just and humane society.
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