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High Holidays Feature (4): Rosh Hashanah; a Time for Repentance, Renewal

In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah triggers two distinct reactions: repentance and renewal.

Repentance (to turn from sin) is not the same as renewal (to turn from routine).

In a way, it is more comfortable for people to focus on evil and sin as the main problem of the High Holidays reflection period.

After all, most people do not live evil lives.

Paradoxically, then, a call to repentance represents less of a shake up of their previous behavior.

Yet more lives are blighted by stultifying ways of living than by assaults from outsiders; more marriages — and loves — expire in boredom and routine than in willful misbehavior.

Similarly, it is all too comforting for the committed Jewish community to focus on intermarriage and assimilation as the danger to continuity and to blame the unaffiliated “sinners” for threatening Jewish survival.

We grow enraged at the Jews who are drifting away and blame them for lusting after the fleshpots of America. This enables the affiliated community to go on with business as usual — and even feel self-righteous in the process.

Communally, I submit that vapid routine is currently a deadlier enemy of Jewish survival than is “sin” — that is, conscious rejection of Judaism. For the sake of the Jewish future, Rosh Hashanah must be turned into a critique of the status quo in communal Jewish life and into a self-critique by affiliated Jews.

Some years ago, a study of Jews attending New York’s 92nd Street Y’s outreach- oriented Jewish Omnibus events found that the bulk of those unaffiliated Jews had been affiliated — synagogue members, Bar Mitzvahed — earlier in their lives.

However, the previous experience was negative — or, more typically, vacuous and boring — so they dropped out of Jewish life for years, or decades, thereafter.

Consider American synagogue life. The classic liberal synagogue is marked by a Friday night service in which a rabbi and cantor lead a polite, routinized service with elements of Hebrew not understood by congregants and elements in English that are familiar but blase, if not banal.

Saturday morning is dominated by the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In this event, family and friends come to hear a young person recite biblical, prophetic texts that the guests do not understand and that the child has studied by rote but has drawn little import for his/her future life.

To serve the one-time visitors, the regular worshipers are penalized. Their service is taken over; the rhythms are adjusted and the explanations and issues are addressed to the transient population.

The synagogue insists that it cannot change this pattern because it is relevant to the families — they send children to Hebrew school, pay membership dues, hire caterers in order to have the ceremony.

Further, the services — having been kept at lowest common denominator level – – will have no attendance unless there are Bar/Bat Mitzvah guests. This routine spells steady death of the soul for regulars and unaffiliated alike.

Yet the committed rationalize that synagogue life cannot survive otherwise. In sum, business as usual is a slow boat to oblivion.

The Orthodox synagogue has a stronger core of committed regular participants and in the healthier synagogues, the Bar Mitzvah is not the main event.

Still, in many — if not most — such synagogues, attendance at services lives off and uses up the store of loyalty and observance of the congregants rather than inspiring them. Most fail to build the kind of spiritual excitement that motivates people to upgrade their lives or dedicate themselves to Jewish learning and observance.

Sadly, the rabbinical seminaries of the three major denominations train most rabbis for this continuing status quo.

Yet the renewal alternatives already exist. In New York City, a Conservative congregation, B’nai Jeshurun, and Orthodox Kehillat Jacob (Shlomo Carlebach’s) shul, have electrified their constituencies.

B’nai Jeshurun attracts thousands weekly by developing a singing, dancing, liturgically expressive community experience — at once more demanding and more rewarding.

Conservative Anshei Chesed in New York has broken the institutional edifice complex by offering a mix of chavurah/learning/worship options to involve a variety of people in different but deeper group experiences.

Orthodox Ohab Zedek has been born again as a tremendous draw to younger people by revitalizing community and by emphasizing hospitality and learning.

The Jewish Center, also Orthodox, has been galvanized by a rabbi’s decision to offer much more serious and demanding learning opportunities, hitherto reserved to more academic settings.

Such renewal patterns can be found across the country.

Larry Kushner’s Reform Temple Beth El in Sudbury, Mass., has broken the Bar Mitzvah syndrome by demanding more advance study and participation by the families and by creating vital, involved membership standards.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., a congregation has become a magnet by requiring community service and personal commitment in order to join.

In Philadelphia, Reconstructionist Mishkan Shalom made the same impact by staking out a strong social action agenda for its members and connecting its program to its liturgy.

A host of Orthodox congregations have developed beginner’s services that meet people where they are and enable them to grow rather than repeat the same rote forms each week.

Let it be clear that the synagogue is not the only institution in which the status quo is suffocating.

The federation world is also caught between its current establishment of doing good and supporting Israel and its increasing difficulty to touch the lives of the unaffiliated and of the next generation. Here, too, there is a real danger of a slow bleeding to death.

Throughout the Jewish world, the road to hell is being paved with good intentions and entrenched routines. We need a profound self-critique within the establishment. We need more philanthropists to concentrate on nurturing agents of transformation for the community and on financing risky but needed new institutions and initiatives.

In the words of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, repentance should not be narrowly defined “only from the perspective of atonement”; rather it must become an “act of Creation — self-creation.”

In renewal lies the secret of redemption.

Irving Greenberg is president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and author of “The Jewish Way” (New York: Summit Books).

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