High Holidays Feature (9): Why Synagogue Attendance Soars on Three Days Each Year

Synagogues across the country fill to capacity, and many even overflow, on the two days of Rosh Hashanah and again on Yom Kippur.

What brings Jews, many of them infrequent worshipers, out in such enormous numbers on these three days each year?

Are the many who only attend synagogue on the High Holidays any less a part of the Jewish community than regular participants in Shabbat services?

Do Jews flock to synagogues on the holiest days of the Jewish calendar out of some deep sense of religious responsibility or do they merely desire to be together with others of the Jewish faith?

“The phenomenon has been around for many years,” says Rabbi Lennard Thal, vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Some who attend synagogue only three days a year “may well be the children of those who went that often. Some may have had a bad experience but don’t want to cut all ties.”

Others may be secular Jews, in which case attending synagogue three times a year “represents progress,” the Reform movement leader added.

For whatever reason some Jews attend synagogue solely on the High Holidays, calling them “three-day Jews” is a misnomer, says Lawrence Sternberg, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.

“It’s only an accurate description of their communal religious worshiping behavior,” he says. Those who attend synagogue only three days a year “may have other ways of expressing their Jewishness.”

Attending synagogue may bring about “a sense of social inclusion by being there because your friends are there,” says Sternberg.

To some Jewish communal observers, the pattern of synagogue attendance is only one factor in a person’s identity.

A 1988 poll in the Los Angeles Times asked a random sample of Jews, “As a Jew, which of the following qualities do you consider most important to your Jewish identity?”

Some 54 percent answered social equality, 16 percent said support for Israel and 15 percent chose religious observance.

Sternberg maintains that even for those people who do attend synagogue often, the poll suggested that worship might not be their primary way of identifying with Judaism.

Still, they continue to attend High Holiday services in large numbers. Apart from religious responsibility or in-group behavior, the influences of a more accepting general society in the United States may also be a factor.

Television, for example, has played an important reinforcing role in celebrating the holidays, says Sternberg. Every year, newscasts mention the High Holidays and this shows that society is “open and accepting of Jews,” he says.

Similarly, many public schools now close on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so that students can attend services or religious youth groups, he adds.

Jerome Chanes, director of cultural services of the National Foundation of Jewish Culture, believes that the “three-day Jew” phenomenon is part of a larger issue, a debate between the assimilationists who assert that Jewish life is “doomed” and the transformationists who feel that it is strong.

The transformationists maintain that “you can’t say they have no identity, they go to Passover seders,” Chanes said, while the assimilationists contend that “the overwhelming majority of Jews who attend a Passover seder don’t know what it means.”

Steve Bayme, director of Jewish communal affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who has long warned against assimilation, says infrequent synagogue attendance is not enough to uphold Judaism.

“Occasional ritualism is a part of civil Judaism of post-World War II,” Bayme says. After the war, the symbols of the Holocaust and Israel could sustain Jewish life, even for the marginally religious.

But these symbols are “not powerful enough to sustain us into the next century,” he adds. And the third symbol, ritual involvement, “is too occasional to make much of a difference.”

Other communal observers strongly disagree.

Instead of “castigating” those who attend synagogue only on the High Holidays, congregants should welcome and explain the rituals, says Ron Wolfson of the Whizin Center of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, who subscribes to the transformationist view of the Jewish community.

“It’s still going to take a good deal of creative effort and planning to prompt them to explore within themselves and to become more deeply involved,” Thal says of the infrequent synagogue-goers.

The cost of synagogue membership, the structure of the service, an individual’s Hebrew skills and the location of some synagogues may need to be reconsidered as part of an effort to boost attendance throughout the year, says Wolfson.

“Many people do feel like alien visitors, who rarely know which book to pick up,” Wolfson says.

Greeters at the doors, people who extend invitations to lunch, and visitors’ guides explaining who is on the bimah and the contents of the service are a start, he suggested.

Classes about the holidays would also be useful because people need to be engaged in the holiday rituals, says Wolfson. “The whole month of Elul is supposed to be a preparation for the holidays.” Wolfson points out that the most frequently observed traditions during the Jewish year are family-based rituals such as a Passover seder, lighting Chanukah candles and fasting on Yom Kippur.

Sternberg favors “seeker services” or “learner’s minyans” as ways to boost synagogue attendance among people who are not very familiar with the traditional services.

These are “not three hours of non-stop, in-your-face” prayers, Sternberg says. They elicit participation through music and singing, transliteration, explanation or invitations to other events.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, suggests a way to make regular religious observance more relevant to the average person.

“Take the traditional messages from the Torah and the Talmud and demonstrate to people how those values can enhance their daily lives,” Epstein says.

“One might think we are an increasingly secular society,” says the Reform movement’s Thal. “But more and more Jews who find their ways into the synagogue are on a spiritual quest. And we have as much responsibility to them” as to those who attend services regularly.

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