When congregants run into Rabbi Michael Ragozin around town, they sometimes start off by apologizing.
“There are a number of times when I have the great pleasure of seeing a congregant – it could be at the JCC, it could be at Evan’s Deli, it might be at Phillips Beach, and invariably they say to me, ‘I’ve been meaning to come,’” said Ragozin, who leads Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott. “And I feel terrible. I feel terrible that my presence and our encounter – and I’m so excited to see them and say hello – would evoke some expression of regret, shame, or guilt.”
The High Holidays are a full house at local synagogues, and for many of the congregants, it is the only time they attend services during the year. Some feel guilty about being what is sometimes called a “High Holidays Jew,” so much so that nobody wanted to be interviewed on the record as one.
“I sort of bristle at the phrasing of, ‘Oh, you only come on the High Holidays’ – thank God they come on the High Holidays,” said Ragozin. “It’s important to emphasize that there are so many ways to be Jewish.”
Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead agreed. “In some circles, there’s a negative connotation to people who only come to services on the High Holy Days,” he said. “Personally, I’m delighted that the people are there, and it really is a time of annual renewal and annual meeting for people.”
Rabbis cite a moving religious experience and the opportunity to reconnect with the whole community as some of the reasons that the High Holidays can attract many more congregants than a typical Shabbat service. “People want to show up to be counted and affirm their place within the Jewish people,” Ragozin said.
“That’s like the ‘Hineni’ – ‘Here I am,’ – I’m Jewish, I’m part of this tribe,” said Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez of Temple Sinai in Marblehead.
For some, attending the High Holidays is a matter of duty and tradition. “I think that there are many Jews who feel that if you don’t go to the synagogue on High Holidays, you’re cutting the final tie with institutional, traditional observance,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “On the High Holidays, the stakes are higher, and you want to be there. A lot of season ticket-holders don’t show up every day in baseball, maybe not every week, but boy, they all show up for the World Series.”
Yet all rabbis stressed that there are ways to be Jewish, and to be involved with congregational life, that go beyond services and extend into social action, study, and more. “We appreciate it when you come to services and it’s great to be part of a community, but the essence of Judaism is to be a good person,” said Rabbi David Kudan of Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody. “In Jewish tradition, there are many ways to serve God and our fellow human beings, and we consider prayer, study, and good deeds to be of equal value.”
Kudan cited Rabbi Lawrence Kushner of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, who spoke of three “villages” within his congregation. “There are the village of the people who like to do good deeds, there are the village of people who like to pray, and the village of people who like to study,” said Kudan. “I feel that there’s a lot of truth to that – not that people do one thing exclusively, but there are many people who if they’re going to express themselves Jewishly, would prefer most of the time to do it through social action, and you could say that about prayer, and you could say that about study.”
Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Chabad of Peabody made a similar point. “The sages of Pirkei Avot [“Ethics of our Fathers”] said that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, which is Torah study; Avoda, which is service, which is prayer; and Gemilut chassadim, which is charitable kindness,” said Schusterman. “Prayer is one of the legs of Judaism. Is it the only leg of Judaism? No. Is it better to have a little bit of everything? Yes. But I’m a big believer in ‘the more, the merrier.’”
Meyer, of Temple Emanu-El, reiterated that there are “lots of doorways into temple life,” but he also lauded the effects of prayer services on a congregation. “I don’t want to minimize the importance of worship and Shabbat services,” he said. “I think what happens in a synagogue on a Friday night affects the whole community in a profound way.”
Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody said he encourages worshippers to go at their own pace. “If you’re looking for something to give you some spirituality or comfort by virtue of the sounds that are around you, I tell people, ‘If you find a prayer on page 70 and I’m on page 200, and you find something in that book that makes sense to you, then stop trying to keep up with us, and use that time to meditate, to relax, to get off your phone, stop with the social media,’” he said. “If you can find a place in the synagogue that gives you comfort, I don’t care how you do it.”