Jewish Holidays and Practices
A Guide for Newcomers
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Basic Holiday Info
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Think Pieces and Sermons
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Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. As we have written about in the last couple of days, this is a holiday in which most synagogues will only allow you inside if you have paid in advance. The same goes for Yom Kippur, which begins in 10 days. Hopefully everyone, especially the unaffiliated or unengaged, who wants to go to synagogue to celebrate, has found a place to welcome them in. While we have already blogged about where to pray for free during the High Holidays (in both New York and nationwide), we would like to mention a few more options for people who still might be looking.
In the New York area, thirteen Reconstructionist synagogues (four in Westchester, nine in the metropolitan area) have set aside seats for â€śnon-members who wish to attend High Holiday services.â€ť They are calling this the â€śOpen Seatsâ€ť campaign. Their goal, according to an article on Westchester.com, is to open the holidays â€śto Jewish participation and inclusion, a strong theme in Reconstructionist synagogues.â€ť The article continues:
â€śThe Reconstructionist movement, which strives to make Jewish tradition, theology, and spirituality relevant in modern times, has been on the forefront of Jewish outreach since its inception,” said Hannah Greenstein, outreach coordinator for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation of Metropolitan NY/NJ. “Its spirit and longtime practice of inclusion has made Reconstructionist Judaism an appealing home for interfaith and multiracial families and gay and lesbian Jews,â€ť she added.â€ť
JOI has been working with the Reconstructionist movement in recent years. Our associate executive director Paul Golin has worked a marketing consultant, playing a large part in their strategic outreach approach. We both believe Judaism should be open for anyone who chooses to affiliate, and itâ€™s great to see these Reconstructionist synagogues walking the walk on the Holiest days of the year. Shana Tovah (Happy New Year)!
A few months ago, the Jewish Outreach Institute — as part of our Big Tent Judaism Initiative — released a pocket glossary of commonly used Jewish community words. We distributed copies of the glossary, which we called â€śCracking the Code: A pocket glossary of commonly used Jewish Words,â€ť to the over 250 members of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition to provide to newcomers to the Jewish community. We also established a webpage for those who would like to learn more about the acronyms, Hebrew words and Yiddishisms that comprise the â€ślanguage of the Jewish community.â€ť
In honor of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins on Monday, September 29 at sundown, we provide you with this supplement to our pocket glossary: â€śCracking the Code: A blogged glossary for Rosh Hashanah.â€ť
Rosh Hashanah: Literally Hebrew for â€śhead of the year.â€ť Marks the beginning of a new Jewish year.
Shofar: Ramâ€™s horn sounded in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.
Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah, Tekiah Gedolah: Names for the sounds of the various shofar blasts.
Mahzor: Prayer book used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Shana Tova (Uâ€™Metukah): Literally Hebrew for â€śgood (and sweet) year.â€ť Common Rosh Hashanah greeting.
From all of us at JOI, we would like to wish you a happy, healthy and inclusive New Year!
The Jewish community is continually evolving and discovering innovative ways to reach out and make sure everyone can find meaning in Judaism. We believe such progress helps strengthen our community, and that is why we were excited to learn of the publishing of two prayer books developed to meet the needs of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Jews. Ben Harris of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes about the prayer books from Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York and Congregation Shaâ€™ar Zahav in San Francisco in â€śGay shuls in N.Y., S.F. set to release prayer booksâ€ť
Both congregations had been using spiral bound versions of the prayer books internally, but they will now be made available to a wider audience. The prayer books include traditional liturgy as well as prayers that have been adapted and made more inclusive. Harris writes:
Though both works include the staples of Jewish worship in traditional form, they also feature liturgical changes that aim to make the service less exclusively male and heterosexual. CBST’s prayer book, Siddur B’chol L’Vav’cha (â€śWith All Your Heartâ€ť), for example, compares God’s rejoicing not to a bride and groom, as in the traditional version of the Shabbat evening L’cha Dodi prayer, but to the more general â€śheart [that] rejoices in love.â€ť
In addition to some of their more subtle adaptations, the prayer books address lifecycle events specific to the LGBT populations. For example, the Shaâ€™ar Zahav prayer book includes â€śprayers for the onset of puberty and menopause, a first kiss, taking an HIV test, being single and coming out regarding one’s sexual orientation.â€ť
â€śGender neutrality is now standard practice in Conservative and Reform prayer books,â€ť Harris writes, and we see this is a reflection of the increasingly diverse Jewish community. By developing this new prayer book, congregations like Beth Simchat Torah and Shaâ€™ar Zahav, which open their gates to Jews of all sexual orientations, have provided a much needed resource for any synagogue that wishes to better include LGBT Jews, their partners and their families.
The High Holidays start this upcoming Monday, and again the issue of Jewish institutions charging members and non-members for tickets has come to light. The practice, also known as â€śpay-to-pray,â€ť is the subject of quite a debate within the Jewish community. We have written before about the growing trend of institutions offering free or low cost tickets, but with a crumbling economy and high gas prices, it seems particularly relevant this year.
Fortunately, the New York Jewish Week has published a comprehensive listing of various shuls in the area that offer free High Holiday services. In an article titled â€śYou Donâ€™t Need a Ticket to Talk to God,â€ť the paper highlights the people behind many of the free services around town. Whether itâ€™s an Orthodox denomination or Reform, everyone hosting a free service appears to have the same motivation: engagement. They believe that by lowering the cost barrier, they will attract more unaffiliated members of the community who are uncomfortable with the â€śpay-to-prayâ€ť model.
Rabbi Judith Hauptman, who runs free High Holiday services through her group Ohel Ayalah, said: â€śPrecisely at the moment when young people want to be with us, on the High Holidays, thatâ€™s when the synagogues shut them out.â€ť Similarly, Rabbi Jill Hausman said that reaching the unaffiliated doesnâ€™t start with asking for money. â€śI want people to attend with a free heart and be welcome,â€ť she said. â€śI want people to know Iâ€™m here for them.â€ť
This is not just a New York phenomenon, though. For years Chabad has offered free High Holiday services worldwide, easily found through an online directory. Their efforts have been rewarded with greater attendance and recognition. We applaud them for opening their doors to everyone on these days, which is a model we would like to see taken by more institutions in the North American Jewish community. The High Holidays are a great opportunity to welcome people in and establish connections with people and families who may not have a Jewish home. Letâ€™s start this year right by opening our doors to all those interested in affiliating with the Jewish people.
We urge you to contact your local Jewish federations to find out if there are any free High Holiday services being offered in your area, or if any congregations offer reduced cost tickets for non-members. No one should be shut out on these holidays.
Click through to read the Jewish Weekâ€™s list of free services in New York.
Heightened security is an unfortunate yet necessary practice at many religious institutions during the High Holidays. But the presence of metal detectors or bag checkers can be a deterrent for newcomers, particularly the friends and family of diverse religious backgrounds who may accompany us â€“ many of whom might be going to synagogue for the first time.
In light of this, JOIâ€™s Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA published an op-ed in the JTA offering suggestions on how to make sure that during the High Holidays, the added security can be used to keep shuls safe but friendly. One of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism coalition is to lower barriers to participation so everyone feels welcome. No one should feel like they canâ€™t enter a synagogue, especially on these days.
I would invite everyone reading this blog to think about what you can do to help our synagogues continue to be warm and welcoming houses of worship.
“Open for us the gates at the time of their closing.”
Worshippers conclude their Yom Kippur prayers every year with this refrain — a final supplication to be sealed in the Book of Life — during the Neilah Shearim service that closes the holiday.
Neilah Shearim, more commonly known as Neilah, literally means, “locking the gates.” As we pray for the metaphorical heavenly gates of forgiveness to remain open this Yom Kippur, how can we ensure that the physical gates of our Jewish institutions do the same?
Security measures at Jewish institutions, and for that matter all religious institutions, are an unfortunate priority these days. On the High Holy Days, we must protect ourselves with a security detail and sometimes even metal detectors and bag checks so that we may devote our time in synagogue to prayer instead of worry.
In the presence of heightened security at our religious institutions, it is essential that our synagogues still feel like warm and welcoming houses of worship, not like airports.
Just in time for Grandparentâ€™s Day (this Sunday, September 7), the Jewish Daily Forward published an article about one of JOIâ€™s newest programs, the Grandparents Circle. The article, â€śGrandparents Circle in on Continuityâ€ť by Rebecca Spence, provides a brief background of the program as well as highlights its national expansion in over ten North American communities this fall.
Spence writes of both the successes and challenges of developing and implementing a program for Jewish grandparents with interfaith grandparents, regardless of affiliation: â€śThe program, designed for all the movements, was not a sure-fire bet. Intermarriage is a highly controversial subject in Jewish circles, and of all the movementsâ€™ rabbis, only those who are Reform and Reconstructionist are permitted to perform interfaith nuptials.â€ť
Spence also spoke to our own Paul Golin, who said the program â€śhelps grandparents stop blaming themselves for the fact that their children are intermarried.â€ť Ultimately, the Grandparents Circle enables Jewish grandparents to establish a stronger Jewish future by nurturing the Jewish identities of their interfaith grandchildren. To thank these grandparents for their contribution to our Jewish future, we have created this e-card in honor of Grandparentâ€™s Day.