Elchanan Poupko

Rabbis, Substitute High Holidays with Shabbat. Now

Secular and religious Israelis at the conclusion of Yom Kippur services in the community center in Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv (Courtesy of Tzohar)
Secular and religious Israelis at the conclusion of Yom Kippur services in the community center in Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv (Courtesy of Tzohar)

Some synagogues in the United States have begun opening their doors to limited numbers of people. Others have not. What do all synagogues have in common? They feel imperiled by the decisions they will have to make for the upcoming High Holidays. These decisions could not be more difficult, especially to synagogues and Temples whose primary income and year-round budget is generated from the High Holiday season. The solution we need to be pursuing? Shabbat! Never before has there been a time for all denominations to be focusing on Shabbat.

As the years evolved, American Jewry shifted its center of gravity more and more around the High Holidays. While in the past communal life revolved around the year with events and religious life spanning the year, we have inexorably gravitated towards a High Holiday centered Judaism. The price of tickets skyrocketed, the number of appeals for donations became off-putting, and the content became just too much to pack into three days a year.

COVID-19 has challenged us to find meaning in more than just getting together with our fellow Jews. COVID-19 has challenged us to navigate our spirituality and to experience Judaism in the family setting. We needed to figure out how to make our own—now messy and overbearing—houses into houses of worship.

Rabbis and communities would benefit greatly if they look at this as a long term winning ticket. What if Temples and synagogues no longer fed spirituality once a year, but instead emphasized the need to do so every week? Would they still be struggling with membership and community engagement? Most likely not.

What if parents were to show their children that every Friday night dinner can be the highlight of their week? What if we showed that song and meaning can permeate our homes, rather than just stay in synagogue? Would any Jewish community have to worry about its survivability then? What if we told our congregants that Rosh Hashana is actually not the most important day of the year, but rather that every Shabbat is the most sacred occasion, allowing us to weekly refresh our homes with sanctity and meaning? Would we not be more relevant than offering a once a year experience?

As the headline in the Washington Post screamed at me the other day: “When the calendar blurs, everyone needs Shabbat. Just ask the Pope.” The author quotes the Pope, who said: “What the Jews followed, and still observe, was to consider the Sabbath as holy. On Saturday, you rest. One day of the week. That’s the least! Out of gratitude, to worship God, to spend time with the family, to play, to do all of these things. We are not machines.”

“So how are we going to pay for all of this?” you might ask.

Here is a simple solution:

To bring Jews—many of them above the age of sixty— in large numbers to High Holiday services would be at best a large human experiment. At worst, it would be a gross endangerment of human lives. To tell synagogues and Temples which run on tight budgets to close and come back in a year may not be fiscally possible either. It might equate to fiscal suicide.

We do need to assume that things will get better or that coming to synagogue with responsible amounts of physical distancing will eventually be possible. But in the meantime, we need to take action now.  Jewish institutions need to encourage members to buy membership-based on Shabbat attendance, not High Holiday attendance. American Jewry is long due for a paradigm shift. The “High Holiday Jew” model was shrinking anyway, was not theologically grounded, nor was it sustainable.

It is time for us to go full force on Shabbat. Let this be the Year of Shabbat.  It begins now with encouraging stay at home Shabbats, and it will continue once this pandemic subsides and it is safe to go to synagogue again. Membership in the synagogue will give you access to the four, forty, or fifty-two, most memorable Shabbats of your life. Synagogues will learn how to make Shabbat as unforgettable as High Holidays—if not more. This can be done through with cantorial, community, and child programming that will make Shabbat unforgettable; it can be done by the speakers you have, or the family appeal. This will provide ticket holders with better membership value. It will give us a more sustainable Judaism, and it will help our institutions during this pandemic. It will also allow us to easily and responsibly call off mass High Holiday services, which hold the risk of killing so many.

If you are committed to keeping your synagogue closed until we have a vaccine or treatment that covers everyone, I applaud your responsible decision. If you decide to begin reopening cautiously with social distancing, remember it is much easier to space people over fifty for Shabbats than over High Holidays. Either way, this year should be the year of Shabbat. We should be telling everyone to stay home for the High Holidays while encouraging them to come back for a Shabbat. If you need proof for Shabbat being the best model for long term institutional growth and success, just look at any local Chabad house, the Hamptons Synagogue, and other fast-growing successful synagogues.

Asher Ginzburg (aka Ahad Ha’am), the founder of cultural Zionism who was devoutly secular famously said: “More than the Jewish People have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” 2020 should not be simply the year of the quarantine; it should also be the year of Shabbat. Rather than panicking about what to do for the High Holidays or putting anyone’s life at risk due to premature or hasty decisions, communities should obsess over Shabbat.

Shabbat centered Judaism will preserve not only our families through difficult times, but it will energize and revitalize our communities, and yes, it will also make Jewish life more sustainable for the long term.

Let us put an end to the three-day-a-year-Judaism, avoid the panic, and be signed in to a happy and healthy year.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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