Several decades ago, Jews – not only Orthodox Jews – “looked down their nose” at the “once a year Jew,” referring to those who never saw the inside of a shul except on the High Holidays.
Today? Once a year? If only! Synagogue attendance is in free fall in most communities. And yet, the “pintele Yid,” the inner embers of Jewish consciousness, seems to burn strongest on the Days of Awe. However, waiting until dusk on Rosh HaShanah to buy the often necessary and pricey ticket leaves more than a few on the outside looking in, lonely, if not bitter.
Rabbi Judith Hauptman, 74, a highly respected professor Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary before her recent retirement, who was ordained somewhat late in life at the Academy of Jewish Religion in 2003, remembered the days of “looking down their nose” in her parents’ shul in Borough Park, and wondered where her ordination would lead.
Her mother, Helen, passed away on a long ago Yom Kippur, and so “I always said Kaddish for my mother on Kol Nidre night,” said Rabbi Hauptman, “so it had that significance for me,” beyond the day’s inherent sanctity.
Rabbi Hauptman belongs to the Town & Village Synagogue on 14th Street; “They had a community service,” for nonmembers, mostly, a free, walk-in service, except that after 9/11 they required advance registration and a suggested donation (of $180). Although I went to the [main] service, I always liked to see who came to the community service,” held at the nearby 14th Street Y.
On the street, “I encountered a young couple, looking very distraught. They were NYU students but couldn’t get into any of the NYU services — they were all over-subscribed. They tried to get into T&V, and were turned away. As a member, I offered to get them in but ‘No, thank you,’ and that was the end of that. But I had an idea, and in 2004 I started it — Ohel Ayalah,” or Helen’s Tent, a free, walk-in service that Rabbi Hauptman would lead, named in honor of her mother, forever on her yahrtzeit.
The first year, she recalled, “We only did the first day Rosh HaShanah, and an early and late service on Kol Nidre night, in the social hall of the First Presbyterian Church,” in Greenwich Village. Now, Ohel Ayalah has grown into three High Holiday pop-ups, one in Manhattan, at the Prince George Ballroom (15 E. 27th St.); one at Brooklyn’s East Midwood Jewish Center (1625 Ocean Avenue); and one in Queens, at Long Island City’s Melrose Ballroom (36-08 33rd St.).
“From the get-go,” says Rabbi Hauptman, “I advertised that we wanted young people. Maybe 15 percent were over 40, and we do not turn them away, but the ambience is definitely young,” people not connected to synagogues, or newcomers to the city, or those who couldn’t get home to their parents. “Many were on the margins (of the Jewish community), and they told me they were offended that services were free all year-round,” when these Jews weren’t interested in attending, “and the one time of year when they were interested, that’s when the synagogues expected a donation. They were very offended by that. They found that obnoxious.”
Is that reasonable, to expect shuls to be available precisely when a Jew wants it to be, but for that same Jew to find it ‘obnoxious’ to be asked for charity to make that availability possible? The Rosh HaShanah liturgy itself declares charity to be one of the antidotes to reversing one’s negative fate. “Of course,” says Rabbi Hauptman, “every synagogue has to raise money for paying the rabbi, the cantor, the heat and electricity.” Though she doesn’t take a salary, Ohel Ayalah’s budget has mushroomed to $100,000 (raised almost entirely through small donations). She has to rent three spaces, pay clergy, security guards, insurance, prepare free hot Rosh HaShanah lunches. Her budget also includes Passover seders. “At the same time,” she says, “I understand that huge numbers of our young people are abandoning us. I have to do whatever I can to keep these young people from further drifting away.”
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg once wondered, if you’re going to be a once-a-year Jew, why come on Yom Kippur instead of Purim? On Purim no one asks for tickets, the wine flows, everyone’s dancing, it’s loose, more fun. “On one level, I don’t understand it,” says Rabbi Hauptman. “There seems to be, inside people, a need to feel absolved, to connect to the tabula rasa of the New Year, or maybe to honor the memory of family. It is likely that this is what their parents did. On the High Holidays, there’s an intensity, the rows are filled, rabbis craft their sermons and the haunting melodies … . Somehow, the lure of the High Holidays is sustaining itself.”
Klopping al-chet (hitting one’s chest while reciting long lists of sins) is hardly what an outreach committee would suggest as a way to reel in young people, “and yet, they somehow feel good to be in shul, it’s socially and spiritually attractive. I’m actually afraid of the day when they will stop coming, when we’ve reached a generation that didn’t get — or give — enough of a Jewish education to make the next generation want to show up even ‘once a year.’ And yet, last year for the first time we had a Yom Kippur morning service in Manhattan and 500 people showed up. People had to stand, they did not have machzorim (High Holiday prayer books) and yet most of them stayed, without a seat, without a prayer book. So this year, we’re offering two Yom Kippur morning services” in the Beaux Arts ballroom at Prince George.
She’s expanded to offering Tashlich, the informal afternoon ritual of “throwing sins” into the water; her Manhattan and Queens congregations going to the East River, and the Brooklyn group to a lily pond at Brooklyn College. “I discovered that the more mystical, or less rational, a particular custom is, the more it attracts people.”
She’s excited about this year’s Brooklyn collaboration with the East Midwood Jewish Center. “I’m getting the space at a very good price, and they are going to get young people crossing their threshold who possibly will become interested in their synagogue.”
Ohel Ayalah appeals to those who want to connect on the holiest days of the year, even spur of the moment, “to wake up Rosh Hashanah morning and say, “I feel like going to shul today and being with other Jews… without having to decide or buy a ticket in advance.”
Her service — “egalitarian, yet traditional” — is the essence of simplicity. At the last 15 minutes of Neilah, Yom Kippur’s conclusion, congregants, in the quiet, can line up for a few moments before the ark in private contemplation, tallis over heads. “Then we blow the shofar. No bells and whistles, no musical instruments, no screens displaying images.”
“Many of the people come, daven and leave, I don’t know them. But,” says Rabbi Hauptman, “I do get to have conversations with some, and some ask me to conduct their wedding. I do four or five Jewish weddings a year.”
Steve Bayme of the American Jewish Congress noted that free services are no longer “an uncommon phenomenon. Bear in mind, the majority of Jews are unaffiliated. The synagogue is the core institution for identification. If Jews are not going to be members, then certainly [these seasonal minyans] are a gateway to at least having a Jewish address during the holiest time of the year.”
Rabbi Hauptman remembered her father talking about “three times-a-year Jews, so I grew up with that negative attitude. But I have changed 180 degrees. Now I see people coming in, and I think, ‘My God, there’s something inside that is motivating you. I am so happy that you are 28 years old and showing up on the High Holidays!’”