Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Who are We? Siskel and Ebert?

It is a Rosh Hashana tradition as old as apples and honey. On the second evening of the New Year, (this Saturday) my family gathers for a holiday dinner to meet and greet, reconnect with genuine love and emotion, overeat as only Jews can, and to enter into the time honoured activity of deconstructing our various worship experiences. Now, I should explain that my extended family could never be accused of merely being "Jews in Pews". Littered amongst the 50 or so aunts, uncles and cousins, can be found some of the most committed and involved members of the Canadian Reform Jewish community, both past and present. There are several former youth group board members, youth advisors, youth group presidents, regional board members, song leaders and even a former NELFTY president. (Back in the days when it was called NELFTY as opposed to NFTY-NEL. For my readers that need some edification, NFTY is the National Federation of Temple Youth-the youth wing of the Reform movement.) There are individuals who have served on synagogue boards and executives in various capacities including a few presidents, and many have taught in our schools. Two of us even serve as clergy. My family has within its ranks people who have founded synagogues when the need was obvious in outlying areas, and have worked and volunteered in all aspects of temple life. This year we will be represented at 6 different worship services in the Greater Toronto Area, where most of us are active and committed members. In short, my family "walks the walk" and are not (for the most part) twice yearly synagogue goers that are so prevalent in today's spiritually challenged society. So, it never fails to amuse me at Rosh Hashana dinner how these incredibly active, intelligent, and intensely spiritual individuals devolve into the Jewish equivalent of the American Idol judges.

Now, don't get me wrong. With 6 separate worship experiences to discuss, it is inevitable that we should ask benign questions like "How was your service?" Sermons are delivered in order to provoke discussions, and believe me when I tell you, my family does not require provocation. I really take no issue with any of these conversations. As a service leader, I have come to understand that there is a certain theatre quality to what we do, especially at the High Holidays, but I would like to suggest a few tips to my family and many others out there just like mine, on how to achieve more spiritual fulfillment during synagogue worship. Please note that I DO believe that prayer and worship is incredibly personal, and what am I suggesting is in no way an indictment on those who find such experiences difficult. I am merely offering some ideas that might make your High Holiday synagogue attendance a bit more meaningful and less likely to lead to the "thumbs up/thumbs down" mentality.

  • Note the beauty and not the flaws. We all make mistakes. I have hit more wrong notes in my career than I care to remember. I have been part of choirs that have barely made it through some pieces. I have had to leave the bimah on occasion to retrieve forgotten items and I have left the bimah (white robes flying behind me!) to silence noisy crowds that seemingly have forgotten that they are not in a sporting venue. These are the things that people comment on and remind me of year after painful year. Instead, try listening for the tight harmonies on well-rehearsed yearly favourites. Look around the B'eit T'fillah (sanctuary) and note how beautifully it has been decorated and appreciate the work of the volunteers that put it all together. The silver is polished, the Sifrei Torah are decked out in their finest, the music and sermon topics carefully chosen and diligently rehearsed, and everything resonates with that yontif aura. Accentuate the positive.
  • Try reading the machzor with a new eye for understanding. Yes, it is true that many of the selections and prayers come off as trite or pedantic, but many others offer true comprehension of the themes of the holidays. True repentance can only come with bona fide understanding. Perhaps when the cantor or choir is singing, examine the translation of the piece. There is usually reason behind it.
  • Try singing, even if you posit that you can't. I recently wrote the following for our temple's bulletin.
I would like to suggest that the rabbi and cantor are not on the bimah to pray for the congregation, but rather their roles are to facilitate prayer, so that it might be accessible to each individual, and thus enable every person to find his or her voice in order to engage in a personal conversation with God. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur especially, it is incumbent on everybody to find a portal, an avenue, or a gateway towards that conversation, so that we can pray with true sincerity, and make t’shuvah with an honest and repentant heart with each other and with God.
We aren’t merely working towards yet another performance, we are striving for holiness and we want each and every member of the congregation to join with us. We need to hear you sing. We need to feel your presence and your prayers. We are not performing for you, we are praying with you, and your participation is not only requested but also required.

Music elevates our spirituality. Yes, I realize that this platitude is coming from a singer, but I have heard it from congregants over and over again on how the music has taken them to new heights. Try it. Music speaks louder than words. (With apologies to Peter, Paul and Mary.)

  • Use the silence. There is a distinct purpose for personal mediation. Find something within yourself that challenges your thought process. Express gratitude, fear, pain, joy, anxiety or simply find peace. Close your eyes and internalize. Blinker the fidgeters, the wrapper crinklers, the doodlers, and the clock-watchers. Attempt to engage in that personal conversation.
  • Remember what is important about these days. Does it really matter if some boor misbehaves? Does it really matter if some worshipper is inappropriately dressed? Does it really matter if some small detail is forgotten? (You need to know how difficult it was for this anal retentive schnook to write that last one!) What really matters is our communal conversation and our personal repentance. While we might wish for everybody to follow our ideas of standard dress, behaviour and decorum, we can only advise, strongly suggest, and police so much. Everything else rests with the individual. That said, please note that you are entering into a holy space. Proper respect is due your surroundings and those who attend. Cell phones discourage, detract and distract. Unless you have a direct line to The Holy One, turn it off!! (Not mute. OFF!!)
  • Finally, COME! For those of you who beg off synagogue attendance, try one service. Open the book, read the prayers, listen to the music and participate. And once it is over, come back. Wish your seat partner Shana Tova, bring your children to hear the shofar, and join with the choir in singing. You just might find renewed energy and rediscover your heritage.
I refuse to tell people how to pray. I am merely offering suggestions so that synagogue experiences might be enhanced and thus, somebody might discover one new thing about their worship. We should be discussing the provocative rather than the errors. We are not there to write a review, rather we are there to connect and identify with our heritage and with each other. May the year 5770 bring all that is good, peaceful, healthful and joyful to every living soul. May we all be inscribed for blessing.

Shana Tova U'metukah


  1. Well said - thank you! Shana Tova

  2. Music defininately enhances the spiritual experience and takes prayer to a higher level. I certainly get a lot out of all the efforts and contributions of all the people involved in creating the amazing atmosphere during the High Holiday services, which enhances community and personal prayer.