The High Holidays begin tonight with Rosh Hashanah, and many synagogues around the country are preparing for the massive influx of worshippers to come through their doors. But for the growing number of non-Jewish spouses who will be joining their Jewish partner at services, little is done to ensure they feel welcome and able to participate. Writing for the online publication On Faith (a project of the Washington Post), JOI executive director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky offers some suggestions for what we can do to help lower barriers for all newcomers.
From the outside, most of the elements of the High Holiday services will appear “foreign or awkward,” especially considering we do things like blow a hollowed out rams horn and throw bread crumbs into a river. “Newcomers may think that they are alone in feeling out of place or puzzled,” he writes, and “that everyone else knows what is going on and is fully engaged by the service and the experience.”
So what can we do to help newcomers feel less “intimidated?” Olitzky writes that we should find ways to make the foreign aspects of the service accessible to everyone. For instance, most Jews who attend High Holiday services can’t “translate the Hebrew without looking at the English side of the prayer book.” So instead of considering Hebrew a stumbling block, “let it be something that occupies the right side of your brain so that the other side can transcend the language and pray. The aural quality of the Hebrew is far more important than its meaning.”
Olitzky shares a few other ideas to make the High Holidays welcoming and inclusive, but what’s most important is that whether a newcomer has married in, converted, or simply returned after a long absence, we have an opportunity to share the value and meaning of our religion and make a truly positive impression. From all of us at JOI, we want to wish you a happy, healthy and sweet New Year. Shanah Tova!
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