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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This is the season of repentance. According to the rules, Jewish people have to first approach those whom they have wronged before they can stand before Gd on Yom Kippur and ask for divine forgiveness. For some—including me—this is a powerful time of year. And it is a serious time of year. (But it doesn’t mean that we can’t laugh at what we do or who we are, as Stephen Colbert does on Comedy Central).
Most people think of the December season as the time which is fraught with challenges for interfaith families. Perhaps this is the time of year where we can prevent those challenges from taking place. Maybe this is the time of year for Jewish family members to approach those from other religious backgrounds and apologize for past behaviors, for being exclusionary and xenophobic. Let’s make this Yom Kippur a true day of atonement.
Last weekend, I spent my mornings in synagogue welcoming the Jewish New Year. And, while these services appealed to me, I couldn’t help but wonder what we, as a Jewish people, can do to make Judaism more tangible to those interested.
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein makes an interesting point in the Philly Metro blog when he questions why we aren’t actively trying to be more engaging. As Jews, we should be making Judaism a subjective and warm experience. He argues that in times of peril, Jewish leaders should reach out to their community. He writes:
If we’d only offer Jews—especially younger and searching ones—a Judaism that was vibrant, inspiring, edgy and joyful, rather than one that was fearful, defensive, ossified and out of touch with the needs and desires of a new generation of Jews, no one would even be tempted to look elsewhere for their spiritual sustenance.
Rabbi Goldstein uses strong language to convey his message that as a community, we must change our focus. Last weekend, the rabbi at my synagogue did exactly that, sermonizing not about the many negative perceptions of Jews and Israel portrayed by the world media but rather how far we have come as a people (as an interesting aside, there was an article in today’s JTA on the most popular High Holiday sermon topics this year). For example, we should be proud of ourselves for taking a lead in the fight against the genocide in Darfur—drawing on the value of social action and that nature of our own persistence. What other things in our communities are we proud of, and how can we share them with everyone interested? How do we highlight our strengths and create a more inviting space for all those interested, including couples and families where all members may not be or have been raised Jewish?
Some people find High Holiday services interesting, engaging, and conducive for meaningful spiritual and religious experiences, while others find them boring and tedious. Much of it depends on the way a congregation welcomes and engages newcomers, but it also depends on the participant’s outlook and their previous experiences at services. Tom Tugend’s article in JTA, called Bored, Disbelieving and Disillusioned, Jewish Professionals Skip Shul Services addresses the question of why many people who feel deeply connected to Judaism choose not to attend High Holiday services. Whether or not someone attends services on the High Holidays is sometimes seen as a barometer of an individual’s Jewish commitment. However, many of these individuals are highly involved with Jewish life; they simply aren’t drawn to the synagogue experience.
If these engaged Jews don’t want to go to synagogue on one of the most important holidays of the year, what of those on the periphery, including young adults and interfaith families? I think there are two responses to this question. First, we can open the door to an inclusive Jewish community all we want, but if the product inside isn’t meaningful, interesting, and compelling people may walk right back out. So we need to ensure a meaningful and relevant experience. And second, our communities should work to offer a variety of options for holidays and Jewish observance—including non-traditional activities outside of the synagogue like Destination Jewish Culture events—so that more people can find a niche where they feel comfortable in, where they are open to having that meaningful experience.
Happy Jewish New Year (Shana Tova!) to all our friends and family. Tonight Rosh Hashanah begins and we wish everyone a sweet and joyous New Year. Below (click “more”) is the card that we sent to our mailing list of intermarried families, and the Jewish communal professionals who work with them to create a more diverse and welcoming Jewish community. (If you are not on our mailing list and would like to be, please complete this short form.)
We hope that the coming year will enable us to engage even more individuals in Jewish life through both traditional and innovative programming. If you’re interested but not involved, we promise that there’s something of value in it for you. And we’ll help you find it. So let’s make this coming year the year for all of us to deepen our connections to Jewish life…and to each other!
A Happy and Healthy New Year from everyone at JOI!
Somewhere along the way in Jewish history in North America, we created a myth. This myth continues to be perpetuated each year in most communities, though there are a few bold, practical thinkers who attempt to shatter it. The myth is that it costs money to pray, requiring advanced-purchase tickets. I wonder what would happen if American synagogues changed their financing structure to open their doors, free of charge—no ticket required—to anyone who wanted to pray on the High Holidays. An article in The Jewish Week highlights some of the synagogues in New York that are leading the way.
As we study community after community through our Outreach Scans, we continue to encounter some institutions that offer discounts to select groups like students, older adults, newlyweds, and newcomers, but most of these discounts are advertised internally, or at best, in the local Jewish newspaper (which is only read by “insiders”). I wonder if we could transform the High Holidays (despite the sometimes inaccessible worship services) into a vehicle to reach those on the periphery. Are free services enough? What would it take to reach people who are not currently involved?
As the High Holidays approach, we see our grocery lists lengthen with accoutrements needed to prepare the perfect Rosh Hashanah meal. The masses in the grocery aisles provide an excellent opportunity to hold a Public Space Judaism event. While shoppers picked out organic apples at a Whole Foods in Seattle, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, with whom JOI has worked over the past several years, seized the opportunity to speak to shoppers about hospitality within the Jewish community and about Panim Hadashot, “New Faces,” The Jewish learning community that he leads. He writes in his blog:
The Whole Foods booth has taught me how much Jewish demographics have changed. Jews have fully integrated in Seattle. Many are intermarried, they do not socialize exclusively with Jews, and their identities are complex in which Judaism is only a part of who they are. It has also taught me the value of educating non-Jews about the beautiful traditions of Shabbat, festivals, and home traditions.
Rabbi Gartenberg clearly recognizes the importance of finding Jews where they are, which is exactly how we define outreach at JOI. “By making hospitality our primary value and goal we reverse a very negative view of Judaism held by many Jews,” Gartenberg comments.
What can we do this Rosh Hashana to find Jews and their families where they are? What other sorts of Public Space Judaism events can we hold? And how can we ensure, through name collection and follow-up, that these events represent the beginning of further Jewish engagement? Whether it is an apple and honey tasting or a Color-Me Calendar for the Jewish New Year, use this time of year to get out in to your community and welcome newcomers in!