LOS ANGELES (JTA) —The first time I celebrated Yom Kippur, I was not yet a Jew. In fact, I wouldn’t become a Jew until five years later, when I dipped into the mikvah and completed my Orthodox conversion process.
I had never fasted, so I ate way too much during the pre-fast meal and ended up having a stomachache and migraine for half of the holiday. I had no idea what was going on in the synagogue since everything was in Hebrew; I spent much of the day spacing out and thinking about things other than prayer and repentance. At the break-fast meal that followed, I felt like I hadn’t eaten for a thousand years, so of course I went overboard and again became ill.
Looking back, I wish I had someone sitting next to me who could have explained what was going on and better prepared me for fasting. Today, nine years later, I can pace myself and follow along with services, but only because I actively sought out a synagogue and service that was more user friendly.
During the High Holidays, traditional synagogues — especially Orthodox ones — are not always the best places for beginners. While there are many shuls that do have easier-to-follow services complete with explanatory speeches, in my experience, a majority of synagogues expect you to be able to follow along.
For converts, baalei teshuvah (the newly religious) or anyone spending the holidays in these spaces who did not grow up with a traditional Jewish background, High Holiday services can be confusing and not very spiritually fulfilling.
This is an absolute shame. Observance is meant to help us find deeper meaning in our lives, not confuse or bore us. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be this way. This High Holiday season, I would like to see my community step it up when it comes to inclusion.
There are several easy ways to achieve this. After the rabbi’s speech, he or another synagogue representative should announce what’s left on the schedule for the rest of the day, as well as other pertinent information, like who should stay in the room for Yizkor (a short memorial service), what time one should light Yom Tov candles that evening and what time the fast is over. Any Hebrew or Aramaic words used in the rabbi’s speech or during the announcements should be translated.
Prayer leaders should also announce the page numbers frequently, and shuls should invest in English and transliterated prayer books. I’ve often had to schlep my heavy ArtScroll siddur because many Orthodox synagogues only have Hebrew prayer books. While that’s fine in Israel, in America, we need to have English siddurim as well.
If you’re in synagogue and someone you don’t know sits next to you, make sure they have a prayer book and show them what page you’re on. When I was converting, this was an absolute lifesaver. I always have fond memories of the kind women who would turn to me, say “Good yontif” and hand me a siddur turned to the correct page.
Hosts inviting less observant guests have plenty of things they can do, too. Announce each step of the meal, like washing hands and making kiddush, and briefly explain its purpose. Make sure to have a few English and Hebrew-transliterated benchers to use for the Grace After Meals so that your guests can follow along.
Explaining rituals at the table and making them inclusive is not only educational, but also makes it easier for everyone to follow along. For example, knowing why my now in-laws had a dead fish head on their table every year for Rosh Hashanah made it much easier for me to understand the custom. In the process of explaining, you’ll be teaching yourself and even your observant guests new and beautiful things about the holiday, which makes it that much more special.
Simple things like going around the table and having everyone introduce themselves and say something about the holiday also will make guests feel welcome. Every year, my husband and I invite less observant friends to our sukkah and ask them to say a few words about the holiday or talk about how they feel sitting in our hut. I love hearing their perspectives; it’s one of my favorite parts of the entire High Holiday season.
Becoming religiously observant is not an easy process, and attending a traditionalist synagogue or going to a religious home can feel overwhelming to nonobservant guests. Though many leaders and members of the community would like their fellow Jews to become more observant, they don’t always take the actions to make these newcomers feel included and motivated to stay on the path.
This year, I hope that our community can do more to welcome outsiders who are trying their best to fit in and to experience a truly uplifting holiday season.