Awarding High Holy Day honors

Awarding High Holy Day honors

Local congregations strive for 'balance'

Temple Sinai of Bergen County, Tenafly

Open the Ark? Sit with the Torah? Chant a Torah blessing?

Someone has to decide who gets these honors on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In fact, said Debbi Wolf – a member of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, who has spent some 15 years helping to make such decisions – there are some 100 honors to be distributed over the course of the High Holy Days.

Wolf, a member of the shul ritual committee’s subcommittee on the High Holy Days, pointed out that the synagogue holds two services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah as well as two on the morning of Yom Kippur.

More honors are distributed for Simchat Torah, but in that case groups with the synagogue – its brotherhood, sisterhood, among others – are responsible for selecting the people who will carry the Torah during hakafot.

“Many people accept any honor and are delighted,” said Wolf. Temple Sinai has about 550 member units, she added. While a few people have expressed disappointment over the years with the honor they have received, “Most understand that an honor is an honor” – whether it is lifting the Torah, dressing it, or reciting a blessing for an aliyah.

“It’s very meaningful to be called up,” she said, noting that some attendees who have little experience of synagogue participation may not understand this. “It’s not a matter of prestige.”

Wolf said the shul is expecting about 1,000 worshippers at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

“We honor people who are really active in the synagogue – volunteers who go way beyond just being a member,” she said. “We hit that first. Second, we [acknowledge] those who are extremely generous, supporting the temple financially, beyond dues. We also honor people who attend services regularly, who are really committed.”

Before compiling its list, Wolf’s group checks with the various synagogue committees for their recommendations. Some people receive honors each year, she said, reflecting their ongoing commitment to synagogue leadership.

In addition, honorees include past presidents, whether of the shul itself or one of the subgroups. While they may not be actively engaged in the synagogue now, she said, they are honored for their past service. Traditionally, past presidents are called upon to hold the Torah when Kol Nidrei is chanted.

Though there are many honors to give out, it is not possible to give one to every shul member. “People don’t really ask” for honors, Wolf said. “The only issue we have is that sometimes people go to an early service and can’t make the later service, or vice versa.” For example, she explained, parents will want to be in shul at the same time as their children.

“We try to get honors established over the summer,” Wolf said. “It takes months to do.”

This year, her committee began its work in June. Next year it will start in May, because the High Holy Days will fall right after Labor Day.

“We start in June and go through the first draft and then firm it up in July,” she said, noting that the committee sends out letters in July to potential honorees, many of whom may be on vacation.

“We probably have at least two-thirds of it settled now, if not three-fourths,” she added. “We’re clearing up the last ones.”

Wolf said that though the committee tries to acknowledge people who have been generous donors, “Some say they don’t need the [additional] honor. They say, “Ask someone else.’ But you still feel like you have to offer it.”

Jewish Community Center of Paramus

The JCCP’s Rabbi Arthur Weiner notes that they do things somewhat differently at his synagogue.

“By and large, gabbais select the people for aliyot during the High Holy Day season,” he said, adding that “any time a person comes up to the Ark – whether for hagbah [lifting the Torah] or gelilah [dressing the Torah], we call those aliyot.”

The JCCP has two High Holy Day services, with two gabbais at each, he said. “Like all congregations, we rely on and have great confidence in the gabbais.”

Weiner said the congregation generally doesn’t give out too many honors in advance.

“Some congregations spend a great deal of time” doing that, he said, but while “it is neither good nor bad, [the JCCP] has not found it to be effective.”

Weiner described the number of honors to be given out as “many, many, times two.”

This year, for the first time, one of the JCCP’s services will be fully egalitarian. “We’re very excited about the possibility of extending aliyot to women who throughout our history have not been able to have them,” he said. “It’s an interesting challenge for us. I’m looking forward to that challenge.”

The rabbi said that in awarding honors, “Everything is a balance. You try to give [honors] to holiday service regulars but also make sure to demonstrate appreciation for those who come less frequently.”

Indeed, he said, the shul goes out of its way to provide aliyot for visiting guests and those attending services there for the first time.

“It’s a matter of balance,” said Weiner, noting that even though there are many aliyot to distribute on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “In any given year, most of the congregation will not get an aliyah.”

The rabbi pointed out that since most aliyot are awarded at the service and, following Jewish law, the gabbais cannot write down the names of those honored, “We try to remember who got one. [We ask] ‘Who did we miss last year?’ so that we make sure not to miss them this year.”

“It’s a difficult task conducted by committed laypeople who care deeply about High Holy Day services and the congregation,” he said. “We’re always cognizant of including as many people as possible, but we recognize that some might be hurt or offended” by not receiving honors.

The rabbi said that “sometimes we hear after the fact that someone was disappointed because he didn’t get one. We feel bad about that. We try to be sensitive to the right balance between young and old, new members and old-timers, donors and non-donors, regulars and occasional [attendees], and men and women.”

He also noted that while the synagogue certainly wants to acknowledge donors, “aliyot on the High Holy Days is not the best or only way to do that. We try to make the statement that all members are valuable.”

Weiner said he expects between 1,100 and 1,200 people between the two services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He pointed out that because seating is preassigned and the gabbais have lists of “who is sitting where,” they can call people up by name even when they don’t know them.

“We’ve got a wonderful, hard-working team of people who get involved in High Holy Day preparation,” he said. “And each year we learn something.”

Shomrei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Fair Lawn

Michel Glass, Shomrei Torah president, said his shul combines pre-assigned honors with those given out onsite by gabbais. Because the congregation is Orthodox, only men are given honors.

“The gabbaim get together first, and then I meet with them to look over the list,” Glass said. “We try to give honors to every attendee during the course of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shabbat Shuvah.”

“If there is a significant prayer, or prayers that are more meaningful, we offer them to elders in the shul and people who have been there a long time,” he said, noting that honors such as reciting Torah blessings and lifting and dressing the Torah generally are reserved for synagogue board members, officers, and past presidents.

“It’s the one time we try to recognize the officers for the work they do,” he said.

Glass said there is rarely dissatisfaction with the system “since we try to be fair and include everyone.” He pointed out as well that if anyone called to the bimah is shy or unsure of how to proceed, “I’m up there by the [ark]” to help.

The process of awarding honors is relatively short in his congregation, he said, noting that he is “trying to have a meeting with gabbais this week. Once you have the list down and know what the honors are, you go over the list to see how things may have changed, such as with new officers. But once you have the process down, it’s rather simple.”

Shomrei Torah, Wayne

For a third year, congregant Sheryl Sarin is helping to assign holiday honors at Shomrei Torah.

“We try to give one honor to each family,” she said, noting that there are about 250 member families. “Many times we send out letters and get back responses saying that they don’t want one or they want only want English readings or to open the ark.”

Sarin, who works with two others to give out aliyot, said her committee meets with the rabbi to review the skills needed for a particular honor. For example, if someone is being asked to lead davening, the rabbi needs to know that person has the appropriate knowledge.

Otherwise – for honors such as opening the ark – “We pretty much make decisions about where to put everybody and he looks over our spreadsheet and tells us if there are any problems.”

The committee has met four times already and the rabbi has reviewed its list, Sarin said. It has to meet again, and then final letters will go out.

“It’s a good six-week process,” she said.

Sarin said that while honors are given to each family, special honors are given to those who are very involved in the synagogue, such as members of the board and executive board, and to particularly generous donors. Past presidents and people who have worked on special projects also are recognized.

“We try not to give the same people the same honor year after year,” she said. “We like to change things up a bit.”

Sarin said she and her fellow committee members know both the service and the members, “so we know what we are looking for.” For example, if an honor requires that someone stand up for some time, they will have to select someone who can do that.

“People may not get what they want,” she said, noting that someone last year was so upset “because he only got ark openings” that ultimately he left the congregation.

Also, while past presidents traditionally held the Torah for Kol Nidrei, “that was changed when people decided it was not good for people to ‘own’ an honor. We try to make things more equal, to switch things up a bit,” she said.

This year, the synagogue’s membership renewal form asked whether congregants wanted an honor, and if so, whether they wanted English, Hebrew, non-speaking, or “I don’t care.” They also were asked to whom the honor should be given, since honorees are called up by name. While honors are not given to children, all the Torah reading is done by teens.

Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel, Maywood

According to Joe Freedland, who distributes High Holy Day honors for Beth Israel, “Because of the size of the membership, we can include anyone who wants to participate.”

The 55-family congregation expects about 100 people to attend services this year.

“It just so happens that many people will be away with their families this year,” Freedland said. He noted that when he assigns honors, he begins with a list of board members, committee chairs, “and any other active members, be it people who are regulars in service attendance or volunteers for committees and/or special projects, etc.”

Some honors are pre-assigned – such as those for the Torah service – while others, such as English readings, are distributed onsite.

“One of the nice things about doing it that way is that you can include visitors and people you didn’t expect to attend,” Freedland said. “People don’t ask for particular honors, and I try to be fair and equitable about giving things out.”

Glen Rock Jewish Center

Inclusiveness is also important to Rabbi Neil Tow of Glen Rock, who said he wished there were more honors the shul could give out.

The Glen Rock rabbi said that each year, “a small group of synagogue officers assign the honors that are standard for the Yamim Noraim and then I put together an additional grouping of honors that are not pre-assigned. A volunteer takes my honors and hands them out among those who attend our services.”

That way, he said, “we can include an even broader range of people.”

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