High Holiday Information from Rabbi Ben-Gideon
U’vashofar Gadol Yitaka, V’kol D’mama Daka Yishama
The Great Shofar Will be Sounded and the Still Small Voice Will be Heard
I have shared some of my history with you over this past year, so you might remember that I did not grow up going to synagogue until I was in high school. Then my mom threw me in the deep end. It was kind of like an immersion program. One month I barely knew what a Temple or Synagogue was, then the next month we were going to services on a somewhat regular schedule.
After that first year I was somewhat used to the Friday night service in our Temple. Yet when it came to the High Holidays, I was way out of my comfort zone. The services were similar to what I had come to expect each Shabbat, yet different enough that most of the time I felt lost. I had no idea what I was meant to be experiencing. I only knew that I had to wear a jacket and tie and fast on Yom Kippur. During those first two years, I was also incredibly bored. Then I was saved.
As a precocious new member and volunteer, my mother was asked to serve as an usher for the High Holidays the third year after we joined our new synagogue. For my teenage self, this was like winning the lottery because she let me take her place. I now had an excuse to roam the halls and, most importantly, be outside of the service.
Even in my years as a rabbinical student, the high holiday liturgy remained somewhat impenetrable. I was not bored anymore—I was totally wired trying not to mess up too badly as I helped Rebecca conduct services in various communities. Only once I became a rabbi did the pressure to up my game push me to dive more deeply into the High Holiday liturgy. I wanted to be an authentic rabbi, and how could I be authentic if these important prayers remained foreign to me?
Something amazing happened as I learned more. Through study, and probably a little more life experience, I began to see the beauty and power of the prayers that fill the Mahzor. The more I sat with them and the more I taught them the more meaningful they became. Now these words and melodies inspire me. Now these are my favorite days of the year. (Even better than opening day!) Now I could see that the traditional liturgy and the experiences of the High Holidays are spiritual gems.
Unfortunately, the experience of far too many Jews—far too many of you—is more similar to the description I shared at the beginning of this column. Wherever you are on this spectrum from bored and disconnected to inspired and uplifted, my goal, and the goal of our High Holiday daveners and the Religious Life Committee, is to make our worship on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur better each year. We want to keep our worship on these days vital for those for whom it already works, while making it more accessible and inspirational for those who in the past have felt disconnected from the spiritual experience these days are meant to provide.
This year we will be trying out some new ideas. After the holidays are over, we will be asking you for some specific feedback about your experiences. This will help us better understand how to improve your experience for the following year. To help us all better prepare for these coming High Holidays, below you will find an overview of what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will look like this year.
In the Main Sanctuary:
The content will be essentially the same traditional service. There will be a few changes in our approach to bringing it to life. First, the leaders of our service will stress communal singing and participation. In fact, this dedicated group have already had numerous meetings. We are busy reviewing the service and its classic music, while also seeking uplifting and engaging melodies to add to our repertoire this year. I also will be more actively guiding the spiritual experience of the days through short teachings throughout the services.
One way to prepare for the holidays is to learn and/or review the special melodies we only sing at this time of year. You can:
- Listen to recordings of selected prayers on our website (click here)
- Attend Shabbat services in July, when I will be teaching the words and melodies to essential prayers of the High Holidays
- Attend a session in the weeks before Rosh Hashanah, when we will learn and sing both classics and new melodies together
New Opportunity: Mevuar
This year we will offer a parallel service experience we are calling Mevuar (meh-voo-ar), meaning annotated or explained in Hebrew. Mevuar will be an approximately two-hour long service experience designed for a variety of people.
- Perhaps you are new to Judaism. Mevuarmight be for you.
- Perhaps, like me, you did not spend time as a child sitting next to your parents on the High Holidays. You did not learn the words and melodies by osmosis and find the liturgy of these days to be a bit overwhelming. Mevuar might be for you.
- Perhaps you want to introduce your post bar or bat mitzvah aged children to the worship of these days in a lively and highly accessible manner. Mevuar might be for you.
This experience is being designed with all of these possibilities and people in mind. You might think of it as a High Holiday spiritual boot camp.
Mevuar will parallel our main sanctuary service in many ways. We will use the same melodies and we are working behind the scenes to make the Mevuar experience one that echoes our main sanctuary service. At the same time, to live within the two-hour time limit, there are major components that will be heavily abbreviated or even eliminated. The leaders will offer active guidance to teach both the melody and the choreography of prayers. One goal of Mevuar is to help anyone who feels disconnected from the traditional liturgy and service find their way in. To help them so that the full service in the main sanctuary becomes accessible.
What will the main sanctuary and Mevuar have in common?
We will use the same Mahzor (High Holiday prayer book) Lev Shalem in both services.
In the main sanctuary and in Mevuar there will be more focus this year on answering questions like “What experience are these words trying to shape for me? What am I meant to be thinking about?”
Babysitting will be available for those attending either service.
As plans began to take shape for having an alternative service experience this year, one issue became clear. We like being together and we don’t want to miss out on that. Another concern was everyone being able to hear the sermon. To accommodate these needs and a few others, our main sanctuary service will begin at 8:30 am, a half-hour earlier than usual. Mevuar will begin at 10:00 am, concluding just after noon. At that point, adults at the Mevuar will be asked to join the service in the main sanctuary where I will deliver my sermon to the congregation now joined together. While I am speaking, kids who were in Mevuar will join our younger children for a snack and a break with our educator, Jason Cathcart.
Once the sermon and snack are over, the kids will join us on the bimah in the main sanctuary and help lead us in the Piyut (liturgical poem) Hayom (melody soon to be available on our website) that is an expansion of the prayer for peace at the end of the Musaf Amidah. We will all be together for Ein Keloheinu, the shofar blasts as part of The Hassidic Kaddish Shalem, Aleinu, Mourners’ Kaddish and Adon Olam. And this you can take to the bank: services will be concluded and everyone will be headed towards lunch no later than 1:00 pm!
For the staff to plan, we are going to ask you to let us know who is coming and where you plan to be. We are not trying to be gate keepers here, only to plan well so that we can provide for everyone the best experience possible.
The High Holiday liturgy contains some of our most powerful ideas and poetry that can inspire us to live better lives, full of meaning and connection. I enjoy many of the traditions of these days, especially the brisket. But it is the yearly promise of feeling closer to God, community, family and ultimately myself, that brings me back with an open heart full of anticipation year after year. I hope that if this is not what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have meant to you in the past that you will feel closer to such an experience this year.
~ Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon