Every year I read online complaints about High Holy Day services. “They’re too long. They’re boring. Some of the prayers make me too uncomfortable.”
This year, our synagogue welcomed a non-Jewish visitor who had never been to a Rosh Hashanah service before. The service went even longer than planned. Afterward, she said, “That was a long service! It wasn’t until it was over and I looked at my watch that I realized how long it was. The time just flew by!”
So, what’s our secret? We have all the traditional stuff for the High Holy Days: Blowing the shofar, Avinu Malkeinu, Unetaneh Tokef, Kol Nidre, Al Chet. All of these can be powerful. We add in some less traditional music and some thoughtful poetry, but what makes our services so different, so riveting, is the inclusion of personal stories from members of the congregation.
At other synagogues where I have been a member, at some point during the High Holy Days the Board President gets up to make a speech to ask everyone for more money. This year, our Board President got up and reminded us that last year he spoke about “sacred capital” – the time and effort members put in to make our community stronger.
This year, on September 3 the Board President’s 13-year-old son read from the Torah for the first time as a bar mitzvah. “Our community came together to celebrate with us,” he said, “We sang, we laughed, we danced. I thought this was the epitome of our synagogue’s sacred capital. I thought this was us at our best. I was wrong.”
Four days after his son’s bar mitzvah, they took the boy to the hospital for tests due to a neck problem he had been experiencing. When the doctors saw the test images, they said, “He’s not leaving. We’re checking him into the hospital right now.”
“He was supposed to be there for a week, then he was supposed to come home. I started sleeping in his room every night. That was three weeks ago, and he’s still in the hospital.”
After a quick intake of breath from the congregation, he continued, “The outpouring of love and support has been astounding. The phone calls, the cards, the food, the hospital visits, the hugs and the love haven’t stopped. My son is scheduled to come home tomorrow, and now I truly know what it’s like to live as part of a sacred community.”
This was just one story we heard over the course of the holidays. Among others, we also heard from a woman who had two major surgeries over the past year, and the support she received; a man whose son had fought leukemia and had finally, this year, been pronounced cancer-free; and a woman whose adult son can walk only with difficulty and who cannot vocalize more than a few words, but who is routinely welcomed at services, where he greatly enjoys the music.
On Rosh Hashanah, at each seat there were index cards, envelopes, and pencils. At one point during services, we were asked to write on a card one or more occasion on which we had missed the mark, and to place the card in the envelope. “If what you have written is just between you and God,” the leader announced, “then seal the envelope, and nobody will read it. If you are willing to share what you wrote, then leave the envelope unsealed, and we will pick a selection to read anonymously on Yom Kippur.”
On Yom Kippur, in addition to the Al Chet prayer with the sins we confess together, we heard some of the personal sins of those in our own community, made more powerful from knowing these words had not been written by strangers, but rather by others in the room around us.
“I didn’t do my homework,” said one, “I wish I could find a way to save my marriage,” read another, “I didn’t spend enough time with my children.”
When you hear real, first-person stories from your own community, it strengthens the whole community. It reminds you how lucky you are, and how we are here to support each other. It shows you that ordinary people can handle even the toughest situations with strength and dignity. It pulls at your heart. You can’t possibly be bored.
If you want this for your own community, you don’t have to wait until next year. Every week, on Friday night before we say the Mourner’s Kaddish, someone from the congregation stands up to tell a short story about a loved one for whom they are saying Yahrzheit that week. It’s a good way to start a tradition of personal storytelling in a safe environment.
Tomorrow night, on Simchat Torah, as we dance with the Torah, I know I will be able to look around the room and say to myself, “There is the woman who held my hand before services on Shabbat the week my father died. There is the couple to whom I delivered a couple of meals after they were both hospitalized at the same time. That woman doesn’t know it, but I was one of the people who washed her mother’s body and placed her in her coffin last winter.”
When you’re with your community, bound together by the community’s stories of love and loss, pain and joy, heartache and triumph, believe me, there is no room for boredom. Shana tova.