Every synagogue on earth has attempted to make the High Holy Day services exciting. Some have succeeded. Most have failed. Indeed, the fact that most Jews’ experience their Judaism for three days a year at synagogue is quite a shame. It bores them to tears, which explains why they don’t come back until the next year. They sit for hours listening to a service in a language they don’t understand, hearing a sermon that is often not relevant to their lives, and then offer their first sincere thanks to God when the service is over. Hallelujah! I made it. I survived. As for the services that are not in Hebrew and are shorter, they are often so watered down as to lose their potency and ability to make a soulful impact.
Look, I’m not knocking synagogue. I’m an Orthodox rabbi. I take my kids to shul every Shabbos. I pray every day with as much concentration I can muster and believe that in prayer we find our closest proximity to God. But having said all that, the shul was never meant to be the focal point of Jewish life. It was supposed to be the home. In Temple times in ancient Israel, there weren’t even synagogues. Yes, people prayed in quorums of 10 or more, just as we do today. But it was much more makeshift and shtiebel-like. The focal point of Jewish life was not the formality of the synagogue but the informality of the home. It was celebrated not with the detachment of strangers but with the warmth of relatives. And as Jewish life has slowly moved from the intimacy of the dining room table to the structured rule of the synagogue pews, more and more Jews have opted out.
It all began with the first Passover, when the Jews were commanded to celebrate not in synagogue clusters but in family groups. Ever since then, Judaism’s principal venue has been the Sabbath meal rather than the Sabbath services, the nightly instruction of parent to child rather than the rabbi’s sermon, and the timely celebration of Jewish festivals with family and guests rather than with the shamash at shul.
But somewhere along the line this tradition was forgotten, and the synagogue became pre-eminent. But is this a positive development? Nearly every week we host tens of mostly non-observant Jews at our home for the Friday night meal. They love the warmth of the table, meeting new friends, the l’chaims we toast to special life celebrations, and, most of all, the lively discussion of significant life issues. But just imagine if instead I invited them to synagogue as their first introduction to Judaism. They’d be holding a prayer book upside down, feeling immensely self-conscious, and would often not even be greeted by any new faces. And yes, we can fix a lot of that. But come on, no synagogue on earth is ever going to be as friendly as someone’s home – which is why the first introduction to Judaism for non-affiliated Jews should be an invitation to a Shabbos meal rather than the often non-ending monotony of the High Holy Day services.
When I was rabbi at Oxford for 11 years, sure, we held regular prayer services. But I never made it a focal point of our activities. Our big event of the week was our Friday night meal, which drew hundreds of participants. When new students wanted to join our group, I would always encourage them to skip the services and join the meal. I would say, “Please don’t come to shul. Not yet. Wait until you get the hang of things and fit in more.” And many of these students became observant and became the mainstays of our minyan. Had the order been reversed, I might never have seen them again.
The same is true of the many non-Jews who have been introduced to Jewish spirituality at our home. Yes, they have been to church many times. What they have never done is seen anything like a Shabbos table. If they survive the gefilte fish (they often ask me why they have never seen one in an aquarium), the electricity in the air blows them away. One African-American Christian guest told me we ought to do a reality TV show based on our home called, simply, “The Table.”
Indeed, Judaism is not found only in parchment of the Torah scroll but in the honey into which the apple is dipped. We should be encouraging Jewish families to invite for Shabbos eight guests every week (because a critical mass helps build a more entertaining atmosphere) and then we’d be rebuilding our community.
Sadly, the shul is headed in the opposite direction. Parents bring their kids and immediately pass them over to youth directors who give them pretzels and then sing Adon Olam. I’m not looking to knock the youth directors, many of whom do a fantastic job of inspiring our kids. But isn’t that supposed to be the job of the parent? As it is, we farm kids out to teachers in Jewish day schools who pray with them and study with them the whole week. One day a week they’re ours? And even then we send them to be raised communally? Even at shul we pull apart the family?
The Jewish community, like any other, has different tastes. I personally find it difficult to sit through a long-winded service replete with a cantor yodeling even the most beautiful melodies. I have always been puzzled as to how a synagogue service ever became a one-man concert rather than something participatory that involves the whole community in singing. For that reason, I have always organized small High Holy Day services that, to be sure, are about reciting the whole davening but are also about discussion and explanation, which makes them inclusive and participatory.
But there seems to be a disturbing trend in Jewish life where individuals are being rendered passive. They sit and listen to the rabbi, they sit and listen to the cantor, the youth director prays with their kids while they sit in silent submission in the pews. And truth be told, this idleness is boring the heck out of most Jews and slowly killing off Jewish communal passion.