Elicia Brown, in her column in the Jewish Week (“Free Range Jew,” Sept. 14), recounts her adventures as she takes her family from synagogue to synagogue during the High Holy Days rather than commit to attending one synagogue and missing out on an adventure.
Ms. Brown admits that she is not a regular attendee at synagogue and apparently sees little reason to find one place to call her spiritual home, at least at this stage in her family life. She has a congregation where she has paid her membership but the idea of “belonging” seems to her as a vestige of a past century.
Knowing how synagogues operate during this season of the year, it is no small feat to be able to travel from place to place each day of the holidays. If any synagogue presidents read her blog, I wonder if they are not rethinking their policy of open doors during the holidays.
Clearly she has no intention of joining the communities she visits; she is just going from place to place and living off the free samples.
But I am not a President of a Synagogue; I am a Rabbi who will not be on the pulpit but in the pews during the holidays. I don’t have to go anywhere. I could very easily pray at home. I know all the prayers, many of the tunes and certainly have a collection of prayer books on my shelves. I will be in a synagogue, however, just one synagogue, because that is the best place I know to get the most out of this season of the year.
I don’t feel Ms. Brown “stiffed” five synagogues on the holidays. I think that she has cheated herself and her family too. These Days of Awe are (contrary to popular opinion) not about showing up in shul. Rosh Hashanah is about reflecting on the passing of time, how we have wasted it and how we can do better in the year ahead. Yom Kippur is not about a big sermon but rather about looking at our lives and make amends for the damage we have left
This is the season when we look in our prayer books (Machzorim) and we don’t just read the words; we use them as if they were a mirror, reflecting back to us how we look compared to the ideals that they promote.
Can you do this in an unfamiliar synagogue? Maybe. Can you do this if you are changing synagogues several times a day? Unlikely. I understand that people go to synagogue for all kinds of reasons; to see friends, to learn something, to sing along with a good chazzan, maybe even to have a few spiritual moments to help us frame our busy lives. We join with other Jews to perform Mitzvot and to support each other during communal prayers. It is not just my sins, but the sins of everyone that we have to note. We come to understand during these holidays, that while we are not the biggest sinners in the world, we still have feelings of guilt and disappointment with ourselves and we need to see ourselves in this light, ask forgiveness for our failures and then strive to do better in the days ahead.
I only see Ms. Brown and her family racing from holy place to holy place
taking “pictures” of themselves in each location but not reflecting on
the sacred acts that are unfolding inside.
In the end, I think that Ms. Brown did not “cheat on rabbis” as she
claims. She has cheated herself. All year long she can visit any one of
hundreds of congregations in the boroughs of New York City. She chooses to
stay home. At the one time of year, when her faith asks of her to turn
inward, she is running up and down the streets looking for how the different
congregations are…well… different. Is she running to find God or is she
running away from what the season requires? I don’t know, I am not in her
If she wants to “sow her religious oats” until she is ready to settle
down in one place, that is her decision. I will not judge her or her search.
But at this time of the year, to miss searching out the meaning and direction
of our own life by searching for the right combination of building, rabbi and
congregation is to miss out on the meaning of these Days of Awe. This kind of
spiritual awareness does not come from searching on the streets of New York.
It only comes from searching our hearts.
Synagogues are open 365 days a year. On these days at the beginning of the
year, we need to find a spot in just one of them so we can find what we are
really searching for. Or as we Rabbis like to say: maybe if we stop all our
running, what we seek will finally be able to catch up with us from behind.
Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.
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