Every year when September arrives, something mysterious happens. Jewish men and women of all ages suddenly show up at temples and synagogues.
In the Los Angeles area, surveys tell us that there are approximately 500,000 Jews and that 75% rarely attend religious services EXCEPT on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Why do the majority of 21st century Jews in our city make the choice nearly every September to come back into synagogues? Why do they set aside a number of hours to hear the sacred melodies and do the inner work of the High Holy Days (even when they don't consider themselves very religious)?
I decided to ask several men and women who attended holiday services at my temple last year for their honest feelings about this complicated personal decision. I wanted to understand what the High Holy Days mean to them spiritually, psychologically, individually.
All names have been changed to protect privacy.
Here's what I found:
--Bruce is a holistic health practitioner in his 20's who grew up in a home where he recalls "there was a fairly strong sense of Jewish identity but not much religious observance." Bruce felt estranged from Judaism for many years but he came back three years ago to High Holy Day services at Ahavat Torah (a relatively new congregation founded in 2002 that meets weekly for Shabbat services in Brentwood and in September for the annual holy days in Santa Monica).
According to Bruce, "I'd already met Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and I sensed she was welcoming, non-judgmental, and very open to all my questions and mixed feelings about trying to find a place to reconnect with my Jewishness. Then at the holiday services in Santa Monica, I met people of all ages who were friendly, sincere, and quite willing to accept me exactly the way I am. For the first time in years I felt connected again with the sounds of the shofar and the prayers that help me sort out what really matters."
--Rachel is a creative business owner in her 50's who wanted to find a place for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur where, "I could bring my widowed father who wants to hear the traditional melodies sung beautifully, but where there also would be a lot of accessible teachings and discussions in English that would address my need for making things meaningful and practical for my busy life. I go to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services on most years because I want a place and a time to check in and ask myself in a deep way whether I'm living up to my soul's highest purpose or whether I need a bit of a tune-up."
Rachel heard about Ahavat Torah from a friend who belongs to the seven year old congregation of Jews primarily from Reform and Conservative backgrounds. As Rachel discovered, "It was so refreshing to see my father loving the sacred melodies led by Cantor Gary Levine's exquisite deep voice, while I was also feeling nourished by the deep inner work and great questions offered by Rabbi Miriam and the other speakers. Not only did it cost much less than at most congregations, but the value from those services stayed with me throughout the year."
--Janet and Stewart have been married (mostly peacefully) for many years but have rarely agreed on where to attend religious services. According to Janet, "Since I grew up in a secular Jewish family, I tend to feel left out in congregations where there isn't much room for dissent or rebellious spirits."
According to Stewart, "I'm also a bit of a rebel, but I want my High Holy Day services to feel and sound like the soulful and moving traditional melodies I grew up with and that remind me of all those times I spent the holidays with my parents and grandparents."
At Ahavat Torah, Janet and Stewart found services that combined both a sacred sense of holiness and an openness to varying points of view. As Janet explained, "I'd never been to a service before where there was so much thoughtful discussion and passionate participatory singing by the congregation. It felt so alive and meaningful, while at the same time there was tremendous respect for those of us who question everything and who need to turn it all inside out a few times before we trust whether it makes sense personally. I was so surprised that at Ahavat Torah the rabbi, the cantor, the active members, and the many guests all seemed to have a sense of being humble and caring, no matter what kind of Jew we are."
--Ellie is a film industry executive in her 40's who says she attends High Holy Day services during most years because, "In my family it was just something you did whether you were very religious or not. Especially the part on Yom Kippur where you say Kaddish for your parents and other relatives who are no longer living."
Ellie admits, "But what I didn't realize until last year when I attended services at Ahavat Torah is that I'm also showing up for my own personal needs. " She explains, "I was unexpectedly brought to tears several times by the singing and the profound teachings. Then there was this congregation member named Marion who played the Kol Nidre beautifully and hauntingly on the cello, which got to me in a deep place like I'd never experienced it before."
Ellie recalls, "Then when it came time for the Yizkor memorial prayers for our relatives who are no longer here, I was surprised that at Ahavat Torah they don't rush through the text like at most places. They take a few minutes to talk about what we each learned or appreciated from our family members who are gone...and what fascinating characters our loved ones were with all their mishigass. It was so moving to be part of a community with so much love and so much inclusiveness. I've always been a bit apart from organized religion, but at Ahavat Torah I felt 100% present and filled up with meaningful holy moments."
--For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation and its High Holiday Services in Kehillat Maarav's beautiful sanctuary at 1715 21st Street (at Olympic) in Santa Monica, call 310 362-1111.
Or for more information about the congregation and its weekly Shabbat services, social action programs, classes, location, and activities, visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/.
--This year, High Holy Day tickets can be purchased at a relatively low fee either for the entire series or for a portion of the series that includes:
SELICHOT (preparing for forgiveness), Sat. evening Sept. 12
ROSH HASHANAH, Fri. night Sept. 18 and Sat. Sept. 19
TASHLICH (releasing old habits and affirming new visions) at the beach,
Sat. Sept. 19 late afternoon.
YOM KIPPUR (Kol Nidre) Sun. night, Sept. 27
YOM KIPPUR DAY (Including Yizkor Memorial), Mon. Sept. 28
Followed by a community break-the-fast dinner.
Ahavat Torah welcomes you, whether you are someone who has strong Jewish beliefs, has a moderate involvement with Jewish religion or spirituality, or whether you are quite skeptical or unaffiliated. The lively and inspiring services are conducted in Hebrew and English with easy-to-follow transliterations for those who are unfamiliar with Hebrew.
(Please feel free to forward or give this blog article to anyone you know who might be looking for insights into why most Jews come back for High Holy Day services and where to do so in a welcoming and inspiring place).