NEW YORK – You can search an interactive map to find synagogues that have last-minute seats at services. When you arrive, the temple’s board members will greet you at the door. You can confess your sins via text, and your personal reflections can become part of the sermon. No knowledge of Hebrew? No problem. The rabbi will explain the prayers to you.
And if you’re more comfortable outside the sanctuary, you can spend part of the holiday meditating or doing yoga instead.
Throughout the High Holy Days, which started Wednesday night, American Jewish leaders have been relentlessly lowering any barriers to participation, hoping fallen away Jews will feel so at home this Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that they’ll come back for good.
The effort goes beyond the most liberal streams of Judaism. Rabbi Steve Weil, a chief officer of the Orthodox Union, which represents more than 400 American synagogues, will lead what he calls an explanatory service at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, N.J. It’s one of several Orthodox synagogues across the country to offer these worship services for the curious and for longstanding members seeking a deeper understanding of the liturgy.
‘PORTALS OF ENTRY’
“The goal of our communities is to have tens of portals of entry which enable Jews of all backgrounds to engage their traditions,” Weil said. “The advantage you have — on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, the Days of Awe — people are willing to spend more time and devote more hours to the prayer experience, so it gives you a certain opportunity that you may not have on a typical Shabbat morning.”
Jewish leaders aren’t alone in taking steps to attract the unaffiliated. According to a study last year by Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the number of Americans with no religious affiliation is on the rise, and most of the unaffiliated aren’t actively seeking another religious home. Clergy across faith traditions have responded with new programming and outreach to increase the comfort level for those hesitant to walk in the door. Evangelicals have been at the forefront of the trend, including building high-end coffee bars inside their churches and wearing Hawaiian shirts on the pulpit.
Within American Judaism, the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement a week later provide an opportunity like no other, when Jews with little formal connection to their faith are most likely to attend services out of nostalgia, family duty or a tentative desire to reconnect with their faith. Rabbi Shira Stutman, a leader of Sixth & I, a Washington congregation considered one of the most innovative in the country for reaching unaffiliated Jews, said she assumes that 15 percent to 20 percent of people at services aren’t Jewish, but are non-Jewish spouses or spiritual seekers. Overall, few attendees will have a deep knowledge of Hebrew, she said.
“When the Jews in the pews had a better understanding of what was going on — a deeper connection to what we would call ‘tribal Judaism’ — there was nowhere else they wanted to be but there,” Stutman said. “Now, many of them couldn’t articulate why they attend, beyond, ‘This is what Jews do.”‘
American synagogues generally require tickets — at a fee — for High Holy Day services. Birthright Israel, the nonprofit that offers young Jews free trips to Israel, has created an online map that guides young people to synagogues that have free or open seats.
Elsewhere, rabbis have been crowd-sourcing their sermons by posting questions on their Facebook pages and asking congregants to respond. Their posts could then be incorporated into the sermon. “When you hear something relevant or familiar that speaks to you, it’s much more likely to feel like this is a place where I belong. This is where I connect,” said Adina Frydman, executive director of Synergy, the synagogue program at the UJA-Federation of New York, who has been working on outreach with many congregations in the region.
Several synagogues from the liberal Reform movement and the centrist Conservative movement will stream their services live online.
Other congregations around the country are projecting prayers in large print on a screen at the front of the sanctuary, like subtitles on a foreign-language movie, or posting congregants’ reactions on screen via text message or Tweet.
For other congregations, the goal is to provide a more meaningful experience. As Abby Pogrebin wrote recently in the Jewish magazine The Tablet, “High Holiday services are a slog.”
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, a co-founder in 2001 of the pioneering Kehilat Hadar, an independent minyan, or prayer group, in New York, which has become a national model for vibrant worship, said Hadar had at one time included more explanation of the liturgy during High Holy Day services to make newcomers feel more welcome, and took longer breaks during Yom Kippur, when services can run from early morning to sunset. But Hadar leaders found the longer pauses and mid-service liturgy lessons actually sapped energy and emotion from the services and made it difficult to regain momentum, Kaunfer said. This year, the pauses and talks will be brief.
“At a rock concert, in the middle of a song, if you stop and explain lyrics you kind of lose the rhythm. If you trust in the rhythms, there’s a lot that could happen,” Kaunfer said. “I think a lot of that education should happen outside the service. When you get to the service, it’s too late.”
SEVERAL KINDS OF SERVICES
But Cantor Bernard Beer, director of the Belz School of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University, said congregants at some Orthodox synagogues have sought a simplified, shorter service to allow time for individual or group study.
The liturgy mostly can’t be changed, but other parts of the service that had been added over the years can be streamlined.
“They want to finish at a certain time,” Beer said, “to have more time for learning and being with family.”
The challenge for synagogues is to make the services as accessible as possible without alienating longtime members. Usually this means holding several kinds of services.
At Washington’s Sixth & I, along with more traditional worship services, the synagogue organized a “New Year’s Eve Party” with dinner and a band Wednesday night for about 180 people in their 20s and 30s. On Friday, the second day of Rosh Hashana, the synagogue plans a yoga and meditation retreat.
Rabbi Hayim Herring, a Minneapolis-based consultant who advises synagogues and nonprofits, is working with an Akron, Ohio, congregation that is taking a new approach to examining the Bible story of Abraham’s willingness to obey God’s directive to sacrifice his son Isaac. The synagogue is organizing a mock trial of Abraham.
“Every person’s spirituality is idiosyncratic today. It doesn’t mean anything goes, but we have to be open for a while, and not be so judgmental,” Herring said. “If we don’t up the appetite for risk, then we know what the result is going to be.”