Shaking Up High Holiday Tradition

During this upcoming high holiday season, my children and I are going to do something different, something that could become a new tradition for our family, something that could be both at odds and in alignment with the tenants of Jewish custom. We’re going to shake up our high holiday tradition.
Up To Now
My historical celebration of the high holidays could be considered as “normal” in many ways. Growing up I went to services during the mornings of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, attended a breaking of the fast, always spent both days with my family, and of course consumed apples and honey. As an adult, and with my own children, the holidays have remained mostly the same. In addition, I’ve tried to carry on my father’s tradition of visiting the graves of my grandparents during the ten days period.
New Year, New Traditions
A month ago I would have predicted this high holiday season would follow the familiar path, but then an opportunity presented itself. The division I work in at UnitedHealth Group has been sponsoring and working large volunteer events around the country, several of them involve building brand new playgrounds at schools or neighborhood parks that never had playgrounds or have seen their’s crumble to disrepair. It’s an impressive initiative that has made a difference in several communities. We have a playground build in North Minneapolis, and the date just happens to be on Rosh Hashana.
When I saw the date, the thought occurred to me that maybe I could take my children to services in the morning, and then take them to this volunteer event in the afternoon as a way to teach them the importance of volunteering by witnessing and participating in this very hands-on event. As I thought about it, I appreciated this connection between the high holidays and volunteering, and decided this can become our new family tradition.
No Working on Rosh Hashana
I realize there is some fundamental issues with my plan, primarily that we’re not supposed to work on Rosh Hashana. I could have found an event that didn’t occur right on this date, but this event is, and that isn‘t dissuading me from participating. Is volunteering considered work? Probably. I could try to rationalize it or make an argument that it isn’t, but instead I’ll lean on my Reform lifestyle, which I believe allows me the freedom to use the customs and rituals in a way that best fits my lifestyle. I’ll also lean on my own views of religion, which focus more on community and spirituality, and less on fear and rules. Finally, if I don’t go to the playground build, it’s not likely that the alternative would be staying at synagogue all day. So I’m not replacing synagogue time with the event, I’m just replacing quiet family at home time with the event.
The Benefits
As I continued to think about the link between high holidays and volunteering, I felt that link becoming stronger, or at least better rationalized. I’ll start with probably the most popular high holiday prayer, the Uneteneh Tohkef:

On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will leave this world and how many will be born into it, who will live and who will die… But penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.

During morning services we generally cover penitence and prayer, so why not cover good deeds in the afternoon, and what better good deed then making a difference in the lives of the less fortunate. Sounds like a good way to start off the year.
Also, has this to say about Rosh Hashana:

The primary theme of the day is our acceptance of G-d as our King. The Kabbalists teach that the renewal of G-d’s desire for the world, and thus the continued existence of the universe, is dependent upon this. We accept G-d as our King, and G-d is aroused, once again, with the desire to continue creating the world for one more year.

I would argue that we don’t leave it in G-d’s hands to re-create or maintain the world in which we give Him credit for creating, it is the job of all of us to assist, or even lead, in that effort. We all have different views of the image of G-d, and my current view would suggest that it is not at all about depending on a G-d to take care of the world, but instead it is the responsibility of the community of people who share a set of values to come together to mold our world into a place that reflects those shared values. Now, to be clear, I mean that in the more spiritual sense of caring for your neighbor, not in a didantic way, such as trying to dictate who you should and should not be allowed to love and marry. Getting our hands dirty by building a playground is an important way we can make this world reflect those values we share as a community.
I also understand that reflecting on and atoning your sins makes this time more introspective in nature. But, what better way to repent, to help yourself, than by helping others. Saying I made mistakes, wronged others, and will be a better person is one thing, but wouldn’t it be better to admit mistakes and wrongdoings, vow to be a better person, and then prove it by going out and helping others, showing caring for humanity?

Tikun Olam shouldn’t get a day off,
it’s a year-round objective.

Finally, I believe tying volunteer efforts to holidays is common across cultures. Many in the African American community organize volunteer efforts on Martin Luther King Day. Some groups organize volunteer efforts around Earth Day. As long as the result is more volunteering, then it’s a good thing. You may disagree, as my examples above are not considered holy days, but in this case maybe the end justifies the means.

Ask The Rabbi
For those of you that have been to, you know what an amazing resource it is. The site includes an Ask The Rabbi form where you can send in any question you have and they get back to you with their thoughts, and you have the opportunity to continue the dialogue with them. I posed the question about volunteering on Rosh Hashanah to them, not to gain their approval, but to solicit their feedback. The response wasn’t surprising. The rabbi told of the connection between Rosh Hashana and volunteering, specifically that Tzedaka is one of the three activities we are to be focused on during this time. He also said that making this world a better place is in line with G-d’s vision for a kinder and more G-dly world, a central theme of Rosh Hashana. But, of course, he also stressed that the actual day is for thinking, praying, and planning, and it is the days afterwards where we begin to implement the plan.
New Traditions
This year the playground build event fell into my lap, but starting next year, with some planning, we can find just the right event for the purpose. As I think to the future, my vision of High Holiday volunteering solicits the following questions:

  • This is partially about teaching my children to do good, so should I assign them the task of finding the volunteer event that we as a family participate in?
  • Should this be done just as a family, or should I invite other families to join us?
  • Should the events be beneficial to the Jewish community or non-Jewish community? Of course I like to see Jews coming together to help other Jews, but there is also something very powerful about Jews coming together to help non-Jews, it shows our caring as a community.
  • Should the events be focused on local (like the playground build) or abroad (like Feed Our Starving Children)?
  • Should I try to avoid the days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and instead stick to the days in-between? Logical and less controversial, true, but on the other had the kids are already off school during the actual holidays.

Your Turn
I’d really like to hear what you have to say, and hope you use the comment section below to give your thoughts. If you think it’s sacrilege, go ahead and tell me. If you think I’m on to something here, then tell me that. I’d also like to hear if you and your family have any non-traditional traditions during the high holidays, even if they have nothing to do with volunteering.
(Photo: oddsock)