High Holiday Sport vs. Spectacle

By The Jewish Outreach Institute


The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to “reach out and welcome in” the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI’s services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.

The fall holiday period is rather complicated for anyone. Jewish holidays come one after another (and for the observant they actually begin in the summer, with the thirty-day period before Rosh Hashanah as a time of introspection). For those who participate in synagogue communities, this means that a lot of time is spent in the synagogue. The liturgy is long and often hard to follow. For newcomers, it is especially difficult.

One way to simplify the High Holidays might be to borrow a technique from anthropologists, who like to differentiate between the “game” and the “spectacle” when describing societal happenings. A sporting event is used for the analogy. While the ESPN commentator might be describing the actual “game” being played on the field, the rest of us are just as engaged in the “spectacle” of the experience (the before, during and after parties; the crowd; the cheerleaders; the half-time show; the cheerleaders).

In the synagogue, the “spectacle” is rather dramatic for the holidays and begins months in advance–usually with an announcement that says “High Holiday tickets will only be mailed to those whose dues are up to date.” Announcements for volunteers are sent out: “Ushers needed for the holidays.” And a team of people readies the building for an assault by an unprecedented number of people. In many congregations, individuals become preoccupied with “seeing and being seen” rather than the actual purpose of the holidays. And during the services, rabbis often use the opportunity to castigate congregants for attendance lapses during the year, though there are much greater sins for which to atone.

Unfortunately, in their attempt to prepare for the High Holidays physically, people tend to overlook the necessary spiritual preparation. This is the real “game,” and it’s not an easy one. For most intermarried families–and for everyone else in the Jewish community–observing the High Holidays requires hurdling some pretty high barriers to entry. It demands Jewish cultural literacy, a measure of Hebrew knowledge (even in those institutions that use a lot of English), and patience to sit through services. And then, as we remove the various layers of rabbinic interpretation overlaying the holidays themselves, the message becomes blunt: repent or die!

Of course, the ancient rabbis don’t leave us to flounder totally on our own. We are given three specific rules to this game, to help us navigate the season and presumably get ourselves inscribed into the “book of life” for the year ahead: tefillah (prayer), tzedakah (charitable giving), and teshuvah (repentance). If we were to read any classic treatise on the holiday period, these items would provide the focus for any discussion or learning that takes place.

Repentance involves trying to make amends with those we have wronged during the previous twelve months. This is the part of the game that is most difficult, but also most accessible for non-synagogue attendees, because it can take place anywhere, with friends, co-workers, and family members. Most people think family–rather than theology–when they think holiday, and re-thinking (and apologizing for) our behavior towards one another is at the heart of these holidays.

In fact, for newcomers to the Jewish community, the “spectacle” may at times be more difficult to traverse than the “game.” So what can regular synagogue-goers do to help? If we anticipate it, then we can make changes in the cultural environment. We can be conscious of the conversation. We can introduce ourselves, and help explain the spectacle. And we can reach out and welcome in. It’s unfortunate when sitting next to a stranger at a Yankees game can build more camaraderie than at a High Holiday service when you are both admitting your deepest sins and begging forgiveness to live another year. Rather than waiting for others to always come to us, during this season let’s reach out and bring them into the community, making sure that they find a comfortable place in which to make a home.

About The Jewish Outreach Institute

The Jewish Outreach Institute is dedicated to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Its website is joi.org.