Creating Sacred Worship for High Holy Days
by Rabbi Rex Perlmeter
URJ Worship and Spirituality Specialist and
Director, URJ Congregational Consulting Group
If you’re a baseball player or fan, and you hear someone speak of “The Show,” you know it can mean only one thing – the big leagues. In synagogue life, I suspect if someone used that phrase, we wouldn’t have to strain too hard to guess what they intended. By no means do I suggest that we should think of the High Holy Days as an entertainment or sporting event. On the other hand, considering the effort and thought that go into them and their prominence in the gestalt of our temples, the metaphor may have something to offer.
If the High Holy Days are our event in planning, it is only because they hold so significant a place in the lives of our congregants. Even those who would tell you they are not religious, much less spiritual, usually feel the tug to come, at least for Kol Nidrei. And, as long as they are coming, they want to learn something, experience something and/or feel something.
For the leaders of worship, this reality has clear implications with regard to choices of sermon topics, liturgical music, etc. My colleague, Cantor Lanie Katzew, and I are always glad to be of whatever help we can in helping with those preparations. In the meantime, there are things the congregation, in consultation with the worship leaders, can do:
- People want to feel welcome and important. How are yourcongregants greeted when they arrive for High Holy Days worship? If youwork with ushers, are they trained in what to say (and what not tosay!), particularly to those who appear at worship less frequently?
- Whether you know it or not, worshippers bring their stories withthem to the congregation. Tying their story to the narrative of ourpeople as the cycle of life is renewed is a great blessing. One meansof making that connection is through group aliyot. Instead ofcalling one honoree to bless the Torah, consider the possibility ofinviting individuals who share a similar tale from the past year(people who have come newly to the congregation; those recovering fromillness; families that have experienced a simchah). If thegroups are small enough, people can even be asked – if they are willing- to share (in a sentence) the nature of the event. It’s a great wayof bringing the community into the lives of your members.
- It has been suggested that all theology is narrative. If that isthe case, then God is the sum of our personal stories. On a deeperlevel than the idea of the group aliyot, sharing of sacredstories is a wonderful Yom Kippur afternoon event for those who chooseto spend the entire day at the synagogue. Visit the URJ’s Sacred Conversations projectfor prompts that will help facilitate such story-sharing.Alternatively, if yours is a study-oriented community, consider adiscussion based on Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s book, Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef, which provides great grist for the mill.
In the end, helping make these High Holy Days personal to the real,lived lives of your members is likely to make a huge difference inspiritual and communal connection. What better way to renew the year? L’shanah tovah tikateivu!
Spotlight on: High Holy Days, Worship and Music: This September, the URJ highlights resources to help congregations make the High Holy Days meaningful, and to enhance worship and music experiences throughout the year.