In fact, they will be here in just over five weeks. Are we ready for them? Are they ready for us?
The answer to both questions is – probably not.
The “they” are often (and usually derogatorily) referred to as “the three-day-a-year Jews,” the people who show up in synagogues of all flavors on the two days of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur. Actually, most “three-dayers” probably do not spend all that much time in synagogue on any of these three days.
To be very blunt, most of the three-dayers do not want to be there in the first place. They probably do not know Hebrew, although some may be able to read the words, albeit haltingly. That means they sit through most of each service bored out of their minds.
The English translations of many of the prayers are not much of a help here. The three-dayers, for example, know that millions of people each year, even here in the United States, die of malnutrition or outright starvation. Yet they read such statements as “The eyes of all look to You expectantly, and You give them their food when it is due. You open your hand in order to feed every creature to its heart’s content.” (See Psalm 145:15-16; this is the prayer known as Ashrei.)
Then there is the childlike, perhaps even pagan-like, imagery that some of the prayers evoke. You can see these people, for example, roll their eyes in discomfort, embarrassment, or amusement when the lynchpin of each morning’s service, the prayer known as the Unetaneh Tokef, is recited:
“We proclaim the great sanctity of this day, a day filled with awe and trembling. On this day, Lord, we sense Your dominion as we envision You on the throne of judgment, judging us in truth, but with compassion. You, indeed, judge and admonish, discerning our motives, and witnessing our actions. You record and seal, count and measure; You remember even what we have forgotten. You open the Book of Remembrance, and the record speaks for itself; for each of us has signed it with deeds.”
That is a nice sentiment at the end – we are all responsible for our own actions – but, to all too many, this merely conjures up the image of some very old guy with a very long white beard sitting on a fancy chair, pen in hand, and writing, “Shmerel was a bad boy this year.” It sounds a lot like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” hugging his list of naughty and nice.
And then we follow this with the claim that on “Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…, who shall live and who shall die, who in the fullness of years and who before….”
This is an uncomfortable moment, especially as we think of the children who die each year of hunger, or disease, or in accidents caused by drunk drivers. How many Americans, most of whom were in their late teens and 20s, have died in Iraq since the beginning of that war? (Approximately 4,250.) Who ordained their deaths?
Can you just hear a three-dayer’s thoughts?
So, no, the prayers do not help make a three-dayer welcome.
The problem is compounded by the fact that no one in the congregation makes a serious effort to make the three-dayers feel welcome. Oh sure, there probably will be ushers to help people find their seats and, yes, they are likely to be very nice as they do so, but that usually is the extent of it. In very few synagogues, for example, will you ever see the president or the rabbi venture out toward the seats of these three-dayers, hands outstretched in welcome and faces radiating honest warmth. That kind of greeting is reserved for the congregants we know, the ones we see much more often than on the High Holy Days. The general feeling (that is, the feeling sensed by the three-dayers as coming from the congregation crowd) is “where in the world did you people come from and what are you doing here?”
Speaking of the three-dayers, they and many of the regular congregants cringe during the fund-raising part of the High Holy Days. Usually, there is an appeal for something on Rosh HaShanah – for an Israeli institution, perhaps, or a local charity, or even a national one. And then there is the BIG appeal, usually reserved for Yom Kippur.
To the three-dayers and everyone else who feels this way, let me make this perfectly clear: Get over it. No one likes to make an assault on people’s checkbooks on what is considered to be the “holiest day of the year,” but let us be honest – this is the only day we can be reasonably certain that you will be there to hear our plea. For most synagogues, the High Holy Days are when they raise the largest chunk of their annual budgets. A synagogue that does poorly at this time is virtually certain to be in financial trouble for the rest of the year. It is as simple as that.
Why is this so? Because three-dayers are three-dayers. They are not around the rest of the year. More often than not, they do not take part in any of the programs offered by the synagogue; do not attend any of its fund-raisers; do not lift a finger to keep the synagogue going and growing. They expect the synagogue to be there – and to have its rabbi available to them 24/7 – when, God forbid, someone is ill or someone has died – but they are not there when the synagogue needs them.
So the High Holy Days represent the best opportunity to hit them up for some help.
The real question is why the three-dayers are not there. So let me say this to all of you three-dayers: It is not because you are three-dayers, but because you have chosen the wrong three days to show up in synagogue. Please, buy your tickets for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur; it is another way synagogues raise the money they so desperately need, especially in the current economic climate. So buy the tickets – and then ask the synagogue to give those tickets away to people who cannot afford them but for whom services are really important and meaningful.
Instead, choose three others days – a Friday night, perhaps, or a Shabbat morning, or maybe even a midweek minyan – and go to synagogue then. It will be a different world. The services will not be as long or laborious; the singing (both from the prayer leader and the congregation) will be livelier; and you may even feel good for going.
As for the congregations, here is a word of advice: Stop talking about how warm you are and start working at being warm. These three-dayers deserve better than a nod and a smile as they are shown to their seats.
They deserve better and we deserve to be better.