September 7, 2013

Lowering the barriers to High Holy Days

American Jewish leaders are seeking innovative new ways to encourage participation in services.

By RACHEL ZOLL The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Rabbi Joshua Hearshen blesses children dipping apples into honey Wednesday during the Erev Rosh Hashana, the eve of the Jewish New Year service, at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in St. Petersburg, Fla. Dipping apples into honey is a tradition to bring a sweet new year.

The Associated Press

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."


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."


Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)



More PPH Blogs