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Feeling Like An Outsider At The High Holidays

At the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services of most congregations, the participants seem to be well-dressed and well-connected. Especially when the congregants are singing or speaking in unison, it looks as though the gathered multitude is joined together as one. But looks can be deceiving.

outsider imageAs a psychologist who for many years has counseled thousands of Jews of all ages before and after the High Holidays, I've found that these Days of Awe tend to bring up a fascinating variety of complicated and important emotions, such as:

A sense of loss that someone you sat with previously is no longer here.

It might be a loved one who died, or a former spouse or lover who's now become distant, or a family member who no longer wants to be part of this congregational gathering.

A sense of insecurity that your life isn't progressing as you hoped it would.

Whether you've had financial setbacks, romantic disappointments, or physical setbacks, you might be feeling at the High Holidays that you've fallen off the path you had hoped would be a smoother ride.

Comparison thoughts to someone who seems to have it all together.

Surrounded by the larger community at the High Holiday services often means running into your impeccably groomed friend or relative who always makes the rest of us feel one-down. Or someone whose well-behaved and brilliant kids make you feel self-conscious about your own complicated children. Or someone who easily found a great partner in life even while you remain alone and searching.

Mixed feelings about being in a formal synagogue service.

Especially for the many Jews who rarely attend Shabbat services during the rest of the year, there is a feeling of outsiderness and discomfort as a result of being outnumbered by people who seem to know the prayers, rituals and melodies with so much familiarity. In fact, I've heard from many "twice-a-year Jews" that they spend a sizeable portion of the High Holiday services wondering if the rabbi, the cantor and the frequent temple-goers might be judging them for being so estranged from the community much of the year.

The essential Jewishness of these mixed feelings

Even though many people feel self-conscious or "insufficiently holy" as a result of having some of the ambivalent feelings described above, in fact Jewish tradition (especially at the High Holidays) honors and welcomes these essential human struggles. Even our name as a people, "Yisra-El" literally means "the people who wrestle with the Ultimate One."

Also, in the Talmud (Berachot 34b) it says that the holiest place is reserved for those who are somewhat broken or who sometimes miss the mark, and that only the person who is struggling with human imperfections can stand in the holiest place of importance where the completely righteous person is not privileged to stand.

So this year at the High Holidays, be aware that Jewish tradition (and most psychotherapists) suggest you bring your imperfections, your ambivalence, your comparisons, and your sense of loss or brokenness to stand fully present in the company of others who are also human, imperfect, and seeking to grow.

You may need to look beyond the distraction of who's wearing what or who seems to be having an easy year or a hard year. You might focus instead on the fact that nearly every soul in the room is longing to connect with a deeper sense of meaning, connection, repair, and a love that transcends all limits.

To help you (or a hesitant family member or friend) to deepen one's personal experience of the High Holiday services, here are four quick things you can do whenever you are feeling alienated, self-conscious, distracted, bored, or like a flawed outsider at this year's gatherings:

1) Find a word or phrase in the holiday prayer book that lifts you up, moves you, angers you, offends you, comforts you, confuses you, or makes you curious and reflective.

For at least a minute or two, let this phrase or word penetrate deeply into your heart and soul. See if it opens you up to a deeper curiosity of what it means to wrestle with the mysterious Infinite Source. Then after the services are over, ask a few of your favorite teachers, friends, rabbis, library texts or Google sites how to explore this word or phrase in a deeper way. Let it be an opening to a year of digging deeper for truth, wisdom, and healing.

2) Find a melody or a sacred sound that connects you with the long history of imperfect human beings who are willing to repair what's broken in themselves and the world.

It might be an ancient melody, or the loud sounds of the shofar, or the quiet moments of meditative reflection. But that one moment can connect you with thousands of years of Jews praying together for guidance on how to improve themselves and the world around them. That one elusive moment of seeing what you need to work on in yourself and in your corner of the world will make the entire service worthwhile.

3) Find a moment of connecting with at least one other soul who is also feeling like an outsider.

Just like Queen Esther (who proclaimed in the Purim story, "Maybe helping my people is the ultimate reason why I was brought into this world"), so might there be a moment at the High Holidays when your warm eyes, your caring handshake or hug or your words of honest validation for another person will spark the strength and vitality of someone else in the congregation who was feeling alone or broken before they shared these holy moments with you. You might find that by showing compassion for another fellow congregant, your own sense of being alone and apart begins to lessen or disappear. As a result of your moments of showing your hesed ("lovingkindness"), you might find that your long-standing sense of outsiderness can begin to heal.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for the plural of "blessing" (and "bounty"). The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Leonard Felder, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and the author of several books on how to use Jewish teachings for personal growth and effectiveness. For information about his book, FITTING IN IS OVERRATED: The Survival Guide for Anyone Who Has Ever Felt Like an Outsider, visit

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