Here’s a marketing nightmare: You have your biggest and most captive audience of the year, and rather than dangling the kind of well-packaged, enticing tidbits that might draw people back for more, you offer up several hours worth of weighty and complex theological ideas wrapped in obscure ritual.
Welcome to the High Holidays, where twice-a-year attendees get their primary one-on-one time with Judaism, meeting up with a God and a tradition that don’t necessarily reflect what goes on behind the main sanctuary doors the rest of the year.
"We have to help people understand that if their only experience with Judaism is the High Holidays, that it is a very skewed relationship they have with Judaism and a skewed relationship that they have with God," said Rabbi Richard Camras of Shomrei Torah in West Hills. "The judgmental God of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not the God of Sukkot or Simchat Torah or Shabbat for that matter, and if people feel overwhelmed by the seriousness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and decide not to come back, they are missing out on the beauty and passion and intimacy and joy that come with Simchat Torah and Sukkot and all of the other festivals."
The challenge is to help occasional attendees get a glimpse of the character of the shul and how it might enhance their lives on a regular basis, despite the High Holiday’s huge crowds that can make even the warmest community feel distant and overwhelming, security bottlenecks and the whole off-putting ticket thing.
Directly adjuring people to come back can backfire with its implicit criticism and guilt. "People come for a lot of reasons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and they are all valid. It might be because a parent or grandparent inculcates them, or they want to take advantage of the opportunity for personal reflection or spiritual growth," Camras said. "Whatever those reasons are that compelled them to come out on that day, if we can help them see that there are other days of the year where they can have meaningful relationships with God and community, with services and with synagogue, then we are successful."
Most shuls do experience a membership bump around the High Holidays, and synagogue leaders are trying to figure out how to make that number grow not only in terms of getting more people to join, but in getting those who are already members to come back more often.
"If people had more engaging and participatory and uplifting experiences on the High Holidays, they would come back again for services on Shabbat, and they’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, there is something going on here that can touch me and move me and inform me and stimulate me and help me be part of a community," said Ron Wolfson, co-founder of Synagogue 2000, a revitalization effort run from the Whizin Institute at the University of Judaism.
Some congregations participating in Synagogue 2000 spent a whole year figuring out how to make High Holidays more appealing to those who aren’t regulars.
They focused on how shuls can custom tailor ideas such as being more welcoming and warm, offering concrete opportunities for social action or study, and crafting services that are more participation and less presentation.
One of those synagogues was Temple Israel of Hollywood, which put the ideas to work at a crucial time.
On Rosh Hashanah morning right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, congregants were confronted with metal detectors and long security lines before they even got to the door.
Volunteers were ready to go out to Hollywood Boulevard and greet people with cold water and trays of apples and honey.
"It’s really just a more intense version of our regular Shabbats," said Robin Kramer, the temple’s president. "We try to create a sense of welcome and warmth that makes the experience people have human — and therefore sacred," she said.
Temple Israel’s Rabbis John Rosove and Michelle Missagieh take that openness into the services itself. They compiled a Machzor that has the prayers in Hebrew, English and transliteration, along with commentaries both ancient and contemporary, and they invite reaction and comments from the congregants both during and in follow-up after the holidays.
"There are many ways of entering, and it is part of the shul’s obligation to think hard about those many points of entry, and to create a sense of welcome for people who are searching for wonder and reflection and repentance," Kramer said.
Like a growing number of shuls, Temple Israel, a Reform congregation, has multiple services, including a Russian service, free family service in the morning before regular services, and a free afternoon Yizkor and Neilah service on Yom Kippur.
Many attendees get a post-holiday phone call.
"It’s not accident when someone comes to a synagogue. People feel a connection and are looking for meaning, and we have to pick up on that and help them get connected," Temple Israel Director Jane Zuckerman said.
University Synagogue in Brentwood has integrated more music into its services throughout the year, and this year that will also extend into the High Holidays.
A band made up mostly of members will accompany services with keyboard, clarinet, electric guitar, trombone, drums and violins. Twenty voices from the teen choir, R’nanot, make the services more personal for the choir members and the congregants.
"The experience is not performance. It’s transformative. The kids are involved in the leadership of the service, and that means their families participate," University’s Rabbi Morley Feinstein said.
While Reform congregations such as University Synagogue are more open to experimenting with the liturgy, Orthodox and some Conservative congregations are limited in how far they can veer from traditional prayers and melodies, since congregants expect to hear the tunes and prayers they have heard for years.
"There are two forces at work: One is the impulse to make the day accessible, and the other is an impulse toward authenticity," said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.
"They way I get out of the bind is to teach. Rabbi Schulweis and I take every opportunity to teach the prayers and the liturgy and the philosophy of the holiday, to teach about the human condition and about God. If I am teaching, I am opening the doorway of authenticity and accessibility," he said.
Camras at Shomrei Torah takes a similar approach. This year on Kol Nidre night, rather than giving a major sermon he will teach about specific prayers throughout the course of the service.
"The purpose of prayer is to help change a person, to refocus a person or to help them stop to allow them to think about life in a different way. I want to help them understand certain prayers and parts of the service so that they will have an intimate relationship with the Machzor and the liturgy," Camras said.
He leads similar instructional Shabbat services throughout the year, and those Shabbats see double the normal attendance.
"People want to know ‘What is supposed to happen to me when I’m sitting here, and if nothing happens why do I need to come back?’ I want to help them see that something can happen," he said.
Camras will also directly focus his sermons on developing a more intimate relationship with God and community throughout the year, so that God’s judgment on the High Holidays comes in the context of a loving relationship.
He will focus on Shabbat as a tool for building that intimacy, and Camras will use the opportunity to unveil "The Year of Shabbat," an initiative undertaken by The Federation’s West Valley Rabbinic Task Force.
Seven synagogues of all denominations will participate in the initiative, where each month programs, classes and sermons will focus on one theme. The synagogues will come together in a monthly program, and a newsletter and neighborhood hospitality will further tie together members of different congregations.
Marketing the programs for the year and offering specific and imminent action items has become a staple of the High Holidays, but Wolfson cautions congregations not to rely on that.
"There is a difference between putting out fliers that say ‘please come to this program,’ and challenging people at a different level, at a higher level. It’s not about attending, but about inspiring action, whether that is spiritual growth, participating in services, engaging in learning, becoming an adult bar or bat mitzvah, getting involved in family education, or getting involved in social action," Wolfson said.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin at Young Israel of Century City uses the High Holidays not just to unveil the full-color program brochure with a top-secret humorous theme, but to inspire congregants to reach for higher levels of commitment.
"If you are in an Orthodox shul, you know they are going to come to shul every week. However, every rabbi is concerned about how you capture the inspirational moments of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and give them a charge for the rest of the year," Muskin said.
That challenge, it seems, crosses all denominations.
"The bottom line is we need to touch people, and people are touched in different ways — some though acts of compassion, some through the heart and some through the head," said Rabbi Morely Feinstein of University Synagogue. "We have to provide numerous opportunities to reach out so people can come inside and see what wonderful things can happen here."