High Holidays

High Holidays

With the High Holidays approaching, congregations are considering new ways to effectively connect to more youth at this vital time in the Jewish calendar. If your synagogue is among those looking at new approaches this year, consider the following variables:

  1. Make sure the program content is varied. Teens need spirituality, but are also drawn to the arts, service, current events, and connections to their own passions, hobbies, and commitments.
  2. Consider the program location. It's important that teens feel comfortable in the synagogue, but by utilizing different locations, we will open programming to a broader group of teens.
  3. Timing, schedule, and duration make a huge impact. It's essential that what we are offering takes place at different times of the day, and for a variety of durations, in order to connect with the greatest number of young people.
  4. Tap older teens to help plan and recruit their younger peers. We all respond best to personal invitations, and younger teens are always excited when personally invited by an older peer.

The High Holidays are a special time in the Jewish calendar, a time when many unaffiliated Jews (those who are not members of a congregation) may feel the need to connect to the broader Jewish community. Even if they don’t attend synagogue throughout the year, the High Holidays may inspire these individuals and their families to find a congregation where they can attend services or special holiday programming.

There are several ways to leverage your congregation’s communications tools and human resources to make your synagogue more welcoming to unaffiliated Jews, especially leading up to the High Holidays.

By Cantor Barbara R. Finn

Last week, in my discussion of the beginnings of the N’ilah service, I reflected upon the contemplative nature of the concluding service for Yom Kippur. The music of the actual conclusion imparts additional urgency in our pleas for forgiveness as the “gates are closing.” There are many interpretations of when the gates actually close: at the closing of the ark after N’ilah, at the end of Simchat Torah, or the particularly appealing idea that in fact the Gates of Heaven are always open. Beth Schafer expresses this sentiment in her beautiful arrangement of Psalm 118, “Open the Gates,” offering a thoughtful and soulful musical texture. Beth shares that she “wanted to capture the personal heartfelt plea that comes as N’ilah comes to a close. Assuming the submissive pose of head bowed and knee bent (or body prostrated), asking for God’s forgiveness as the last slivers of sunlight fade from view, is an awesome moment. From that most vulnerable position, we have a chance to offer our humblest prayer and feel the magnitude of what it means to be worthy of forgiveness.” LISTEN

By Cantor Barbara R. Finn

Yom Kippur is bookended by music and liturgy that speak to us on an emotional level.  We often cannot explain it; it is simple yet powerfully spiritual, reaching into our souls with a fervor that would leave us empty were we to miss those elements of the service.

In her article about Kol Nidre, Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky says, "There is an intangible, lasting power to the Kol Nidre, and that power does not emanate from its text, but rather its melody."  Ritual observance or non-observance, belief or non-belief in the Holy One does not affect how the music stirs our souls.  In words from the book, Imperfect Harmony by Stacy Horn, "words that tell an emotional story, set to appropriate music, burn into the soul."

By Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

The N’ilah service on late Yom Kippur afternoon is notable for its image of the Gates of Repentance closing their doors.  At this late and hungry hour, for the final time during the Day of Atonement, we are summoned to repentance.  The fact that many Sages argue we can actually delay our atonement to the end of the Sukkot holiday does not lessen the drama of the moment.

At the end of N’ilah, often as the sun has set, we will hear the final blast of the shofar.  We will also declare the most essential teaching of the entire season: God is Merciful!  We actually chant this seven times, just to make sure we get the point.  The Gates are closing, but the mercy of God never ends.

By Rabbi Richard Sarason

Yom Kippur is the only day in the traditional Jewish liturgical year to have five services: in addition to the usual four shared with Shabbatot, Festivals, and Rosh Hashanah (evening, morning, Musaf, and afternoon1), Yom Kippur has a concluding service called N’ilah (literally, "locking"). This name refers to the time of the locking of the gates of the Temple at the end of the day.  In this respect, too, the rabbinic liturgy for Yom Kippur emphasizes and imaginatively enacts the ritual activities of the now-destroyed Temple on the Day of Atonement.  But the image of “locking the gates” in rabbinic prayer is also construed figuratively as referring to the closing of the gates of repentance at the end of Yom Kippur and the sealing of the Book of Life for another year.  This is why, during the N’ilah service, the wording of those petitions in the Amidah and in Avinu Malkeinu that throughout the penitential season have been phrased as kotveinu ("inscribe us" [for a good year, in the book of life, etc.) is changed to chotmeinu2 ("seal us . . .").

By Cantor Penny Kessler

Eighteen years ago, when I first led Yizkor on Yom Kippur at my current synagogue, I admit to having been startled by an exodus from the pews. Our congregation recites Yizkor immediately after the Torah service, before the scrolls are returned to the ark and right before musaf (a supplemental service added by some Jews on holidays). I had always understood yizkor as – unlike the individuality of yahrzeit (the yearly anniversary of a death) or sh’loshim (the month-long mourning period following burial) – a communal experience. With its acknowledgment of the deaths of parents, siblings, other relatives, friends and our Peoples’ martyrs, Yizkor was something all Jews could share, especially during the overwhelming 25 hours of Yom Kippur. And yet people left. When gently questioned, most of those who left (some returning following Yizkor, some going home even though the service would continue with musaf in my relatively “traditional” shul) told me – and here I paraphrase – “my parents are alive and – well, you know … kinnehura.” (“Kinnehura” is a Yiddish term said to ward off the evil eye, or bad luck.) That other loved ones were memorialized within the Yizkor service, not just immediate relatives, specifically parents, didn’t make a difference; there was something about the spiritual power that caused people to exit.