Celebrating the New Year Festivals Humanistically: Bringing Intercultural Families Closer Together

By Rabbi Miriam Jerris


The festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were the catalyst that led me to become a Humanistic Jew. I found the fear of judgment, the expression of sins that I did not commit, and asking for forgiveness from a higher power all deeply troubling. The words uttered at the services I attended did not make me feel stronger about being Jewish, did not make me connect to a many-thousand-year-old tradition in a meaningful way, and did not make me feel closer to family. What occurred in the temple was at odds with what occurred in my head and heart. I became more and more conflicted until I could handle the conflict no longer. I stopped going to services. I couldn’t imagine that I was the only Jew who felt this way.

I was lucky, very fortunate indeed. In my very own community, there was an alternative available to me. There was a congregation for Humanistic Judaism, with a young, brilliant, dynamic rabbi at its helm. Finding a Jewish community that was consistent with my belief system was an amazing and life-transforming experience. It eventually allowed me to achieve my dream to become a rabbi. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I began to reflect seriously on the meaning of the holidays and how they could impact my life and the lives of others. It wasn’t until I began working with the intercultural and interfaith community as a professional that I became aware of some of the issues that arise for intermarried families. I sought to find inclusive and embracing ways for all those who might participate to celebrate the holidays. When the approach to Jewish identity is culturally based, when one is freed from a particular liturgy or practice, there are many ways for the holidays to be more inclusive and meaningful for intercultural families.

Humanistic Jews celebrate the New Year season beginning with Rosh Hashanah and culminating with Yom Kippur. This period, which also encompasses the Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe), creates a ten-day period of self-reflection and introspection that leads to self-responsibility, change, seeking forgiveness from oneself and other human beings and beginning anew. These are universal values that transcend the particularity of a group. These are values that embrace all people, regardless of birth or background. Both partners in an intercultural relationship can connect to these values and bring them to the forefront of their family holiday observance.

As a Humanistic Jew, I am sensitive to what I say. One of the major tenets of Humanistic Judaism is that what we say is what we believe. In reading through the many Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, I noticed passages that spoke about coming together with all other Jews in the world to celebrate and observe these ancient holidays. As I sat next to my born-Catholic husband, I wondered what that felt like to him, to be excluded often in the very first words of a service. When I began to write my own Rosh Hashanah liturgy, I addressed that concern. For example, this appears in one of the opening paragraphs of a Rosh Hashanah evening service: “Our presence here today affirms our connection to our people… We are here to share with family, friends, and community the significance of this day…” My change was very minor, but significant: “Our presence here today affirms our connection to the Jewish people, whether through birth, choice or association. We are here to share with family, friends, and community the significance of this day…” There are times when it is important to go a step further than “not offending.” By adding just a few words, our family members who were not born Jewish are brought into the circle of celebration. They are specifically embraced and included.

Several times, I have facilitated an indoor ritual as part of the Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur season based on the concept of tashlich (a casting off) traditionally held on Rosh Hashanah afternoon. In this ritual, we choose, from the previous year, a behavior or act with which we are not happy, to cast off. We write it on a piece of paper with water-soluble ink and immerse it in a container of water. The “transgression” is washed away, enabling us to let go of our regrets and begin anew. The ritual of tashlich is a ritual that can speak to people of all backgrounds. Grounded in Judaism, it attends to human concerns, the concerns of an ancient people who are seeking to cast off their sins and concerns of modern day people who want to rid themselves of the mistakes of the past year.

Focusing on the universal values that form the foundation of the holidays, using inclusive language, and participating in creative ritual are just a few of the ways that Humanistic Judaism provides occasions for families to become closer by enjoying the New Year festivals together.


About Rabbi Miriam Jerris

Rabbi Miriam Jerris is the rabbi of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis. She has been supporting intermarried couples and their families for more than 22 years. Jerris has been married to her Humanist, born-Catholic husband for more than 16 years. Contact her at miriamjerris@shj.org or through her website theweddingconnection.net.