The Search For Meaning

The Search For Meaning

Associate Editor

The existential problems of synagogue worship, let alone the more terrestrial problems of religious illiteracy, alienation, displeasure with sermons, and annoyance with cantors, has basically been solved by American Jews: 89 percent simply stay away.But on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur there is no avoiding the culture clash: Nearly 60 percent of American Jewry jam into pews across the land, an influx of nearly three million Jews who would otherwise be gone. Suddenly, and perennially, congregants and rabbis confront the need to bridge diverse populations who dramatically disagree on what, exactly, is a ìmeaningfulî synagogue experience during these Days of Awe.The Jewish Week solicited ideas from both readers and Jewish professionals: What would you do if you ran the service? What do you want out of the High Holy Days that you arenít getting? The answers were as vibrant and contradictory as New York itself.More than a few respondents felt that the time has come to stop making High Holy Days tickets more financially prohibitive than a Knicks game or a Broadway show. Simon DelMonte, via e-mail, writes: ìThe message that ticket sales send is contradictory to the message that all Jews are welcome and are responsible for one another. Ö I wonder how many people simply canít afford to pray?îJordan Lane, a reader from Bayside, would like at least one holiday sermon dealing with ìcontemporary Jewish problems and occurrences at home and abroad.îGreat Neckís Myra Feder was another reader who saw Rosh HaShanah as a time to grapple in the synagogue with ìthe injustice of racial and religious segregation,î with the problems of pain and poverty brought on by ìthe color of their skin.îEdward J. Klein, an attorney in Jamaica Estates, says Tashlich, the Rosh HaShanah ceremony of going down to a flowing body of water and symbolically having our sins be cleansed, ìintrigues me. I have done it several times and the crumbs usually blow back into my face.î He says Tashlich would be more meaningful if it included ìthe gathering of trash and properly disposing of it,î which the Long Island Havurah for Humanistic Judaism will do along the beach on the Friday night of Rosh HaShanah.Rabbi Sam Intrator, spiritual leader of the Carlebach Shul, advises that we sell Rosh HaShanah short if we turn it into a warmed-over Earth Day or Martin Luther King Day. ìRosh HaShanah and Tashlich are about cleansing ourselves. If I cleanse myself, yes, in the coming year Iím going to pick up the trash; Iím going to do everything to help end pain and poverty. But if Rosh HaShanah itself is so misunderstood that itís reduced to picking up the external garbage, then weíre further disconnected from each of our very real internal needs.îThe Carlebach Shulís Tashlich, held this year on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, has became a Hudson riverside institution, with the congregation often doubling, swelling with passers-by in the park.One anonymous e-mailer takes issue with political sermons, pointing out that ìPolitics has potential to divide and alienate congregants who are on the borderline of alienation already.îRabbi Intrator adds: ìThe New Year should be welcomed with joy, not by one more day of rabbis krechtzing about our political problems.îBrooklynís Yitzhak Buxbaum, a religious teacher and writer, recognizes the Days of Awe as a time to look homeward, away from the front page and into whatís private. These are the days when our deeds are reckoned in Heaven and our personal fates are inscribed for the year ahead.With that in mind, Buxbaum prefers a more classical spiritual environment where rabbis donít make themselves the show, where penitents can keep their eye on the prize: ìI try to find an environment where I wonít be disturbed too much, where I can be introspective. My goal on Rosh HaShanah is to try and change myself; Iíd seek places that are quieter, more conducive to that.îDavid Elcott, academic vice president of CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, has a unique perspective: Heís married to Reform Rabbi Shira Milgrom, and has studied with leading scholars of all denominations, including Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism. Elcott himself is halachic and opts for an Orthodox shul where ìThe music is both beautiful and sing-able. You feel drawn in.ìIíve learned that the more you are dependent on the rabbi, or his sermons, the more you have yet to grasp what the Yomim Noraim [Days of Awe] are really about; you have not allowed them inside of you. The religious, spiritual idea of Rosh HaShanah was not conceived as a combination of concert and oratory. The degree to which the liturgy, the sermon and the cantor distract from the internal experience is the degree to which it fails.îRabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL, is not a pulpit rabbi but has the chance to test some of his creative ideas when he leads a Rosh HaShanah service in Highland Park, Ill.ìI wonít give a sermon,î he says. ìInstead, Iíll give running commentary and contemplative or meditation exercises, lasting about seven to 10 minutes. For example, before Kol Nidre, weíll do a meditation in which we release ourselves from every obligation and vow: Iím no longer a husband, no longer a wife, no longer a parent, no longer a child, no longer an owner of a business, no longer an employee. … Whatever our obligations,î on Kol Nidre we are freed from them.ìSo now youíre standing there for the next 25 hours and youíre thinking of what obligations you want to let go of, which ones you want to take back, and how you want to take those obligations back,î Rabbi Kula continues.Before the davening that speaks of Godís coronation, Rabbi Kula plans to ìuse a Shlomo Carlebach niggun [spiritual melody] and dance around the shul for 25 minutes and have the feeling of coronating a king.ìBut what makes me different from many of the New Age Reform or Conservative rabbis,î says Rabbi Kula, ìis Iím also interested in the experience being created by the tradition and the davening. With the davening, we have a language that roots us deeper than a thousand years. Thatís a power in and of itself.îThese are holy days, he reminds us, a time to challenge not only the services but to challenge ourselves.

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