I generally see the glass as half filled. Some friends find this amusing. In a world filled by deceit and violence, it’s a real challenge to retain a sense of optimism. Still, I do—particularly during the High Holy Days.
On Rosh Hashanah—this past Wednesday night and yesterday morning—congregants and guests filled the sanctuary at Congregation Sherith Israel. (The Reform movement, as in Israel, marks only the first day of the New Year.) Similarly, worshippers will fill the pews on Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—next Friday night and Saturday. In truth, this will represent an anomaly. Yet something positive will take place.
Many Jews active in synagogue life may raise an eyebrow at “twice-a-year” Jews filling so many of the temple’s seats. These people almost never come to Shabbat or holiday services. They don’t attend Torah study or adult education classes. In fact, they rarely find reason to walk through our doors. While they may pursue secular Jewish activities, Judaism has little or no place in their lives.
Nonetheless, although they have every opportunity to totally break from Judaism, they maintain their synagogue memberships or buy High Holy Day tickets. They feel impelled to touch base with the past and something within themselves.
Touching base should not be minimized. Granted, many—perhaps most—Jews will not attend High Holy Day services at all. But others, who find religion of no appeal, cannot cut the cord. Do they feel guilty, given the historic sufferings of the Jewish people? Do they fear disappointing their parents, living or dead? Do they consider attendance a form of noblesse oblige? Must they let the religious community know that while they have little interest in it, they are big-hearted enough to offer a measure of support?
Perhaps a qualified “yes” informs each answer. I suspect, however, that something more is involved. I suspect that many “twice-a-year Jews” would like to find a path towards God—however they might define God—but don’t know how. I suspect that touching base keeps alive the idea that they remain capable of making a commitment to Judaism besides the writing of checks.
I suspect that in a society grown increasingly secular and often devoid of lasting values, “twice-a-year” Jews hunger for an experience to take them outside of themselves and beyond the material objects of modern “worship.” They seek to connect with something larger and more meaningful. Likewise, I suspect that many Christians who go to church only on Christmas and perhaps Easter experience the same longing. They express a non-denominational, very human desire to find deeper meaning in a bigger world.
I’m glad that our sanctuary fills up even if empty seats abound the rest of the year. I also understand that touching base alone won’t guarantee liberal Judaism’s survival in North America. But touching base keeps the door open. It maintains the possibility that a spark—perhaps many sparks—someday will be lit.
Sometimes—and I write this as an optimist with his feet on the ground—that’s all we can ask.
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