November 20, 2019

Seder lessons for the High Holy Day services

For the greater part of the last decade, my wife Rachel and I have led communal Passover sedarim and services, as well as High Holy Days Services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in Manhattan. The first seven years of leading services were geared towards unaffiliated young Jewish professionals in lower Manhattan under the auspices of the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE).

Our inaugural High Holy Day Services were conducted in Manhattan’s iconic Puck Building. We had no idea what to expect. Through aggressive street marketing, parlor meetings and word-of-mouth advertising, more than 150 unaffiliated young Jewish professionals pre-registered to come and pray with us. In addition to the explanatory services, we held festive holiday meals that engendered a sense of warmth and community. For many, this was either their first Jewish experience in many years — or possibly their first Jewish experience ever.

During the subsequent years, our holiday services grew in both content and attendees, as did the necessary organizational resources. The greater number of young Jewish professionals being served demanded a greater investment on our part as far as time, energy and finances. It seemed that our efforts spurred greater attendance and in turn a greater opportunity to engage on an ongoing basis, to turn a once a year holiday into an ongoing connection of regular meaningful Jewish experiences.

We were beginning to form a community.

Our goal was to create a yearlong, ongoing and permanent community of young professionals connected through their common desire to develop their Jewish identity. We prayed together, shared apple martinis together, and discussed the meaning of teshuva, returning to ourselves and to Jewish tradition. Each year a healthy number of participants from the High Holy Day Service would return to pray with us on Shabbat, join our Shabbat table at home and became “core” members of our burgeoning community. They would identify this community as theirs, find relevance in the explanations and leave the services feeling inspired, recharged and energized. This smaller group would come not just once each year, but regularly, to our weekly classes, Shabbat dinners, volunteer programs, holiday parties and other programs.

Yet, the majority of the participants did not return to pray and many didn’t come back for other programs and events. These “High Holy Day Jews” experience some Jewish guilt or for a multitude of other reasons, only come to one service each year — and that’s it. They don’t want more Judaism in their lives. Once each year seems to be the maximum. Despite best efforts to lure them back more often, enticing home-cooked Shabbat invitations, personal emails or Facebook messages, they had made up their minds that neither I, nor the Jewish identity we were offering, would play a role in their lives beyond that once-per-year visit to synagogue.

Initially, this decision would pain me greatly and this low retention rate would cloud any personal feelings of success. Yet over time, as our community began to grow and our weekly classes, monthly Shabbat dinners, parties and retreat participant numbers remained steady, I became complacent with this reality. I turned a blind eye to it. My plate was full. Thank G-d. We certainly had a healthy flow of interested Jews.

As summer began to fade into autumn and High Holy Day planning began, my whole outlook had changed — I knew going into it that for many, no matter what we did or didn’t do, they were not coming back until the following Yom Kippur.

I had an epiphany, however, during a post-Passover conversation with my friend and colleague Steve Eisenberg, co-founder of Jewish International Connection of New York, on the past year. As had become our custom, we were sharing stories, comparing experiences and suggesting tweaks for future years, and then he said something that altered my entire perception of this challenge. He too faced a similar difficulty in his efforts. I learned that the issue wasn’t the apple martinis or the break-out sessions during the service — it was the holiday service experience itself.

Let’s face it, even though our service is engaging, explanatory,  and experiential, peppered with questions and interaction, it is still a prayer service.

It was then that I realized that the Passover Seder, filled with experience, relevance, joy, melodies, tradition, socialized through hands on ‘direct contact’, should inform our services. The Seder is able to touch people’s souls and speak to them in ways that many synagogue-based services never can.

That being said, there is a lot the Passover seder can teach a synagogue service. With the summer soon over and the Holy Days, lurking, Synagogues will soon be filling-up for Rosh Hashanah Services, Yizkor memorial and Kol Nidre night. Here is a Passover inspired checklist, is your High Holy Day Service Kosher for Passover?

1. Is it relevant? In the advertising industry, relevancy is everything. Before purchasing anything, a consumer asks himself, “Is this relevant to me?” Knowing this, advertisers then decide upon focal points in their advertising to connect their product to potential customers. The Passover seder experience is inherently more relevant to Jews of all walks of life than a synagogue service. For instance, the seder incorporates daily activities such as eating and discussion, in which everyone, regardless of affiliation or denomination, participates; it centers around the idea of freedom, a universal concept that most agree is a basic human right; and it provides a social atmosphere, which humans crave, where you are expected to make comments, meet your neighbors and learn about Judaism in a non-judgmental environment.

2. Is it interactive? Our Passover seder table is super-interactive. Overlooking the obvious regular interaction between food, wine and stimulating discussion, our table includes lots of “edutainment.” From the many costumes, role plays, games, marshmallow guns and decorations, the entire seder is interactive in every definition.

3. Is it user-friendly? Have you ever been to a seder that did not include step-by-step instructions? Instructions are key. The expert and the novice are both warmly welcomed and no one feels out of place. The instructions provided throughout the seder level the playing field, embracing all those around the table equally.

4. Lastly, is it modern? There is no secret sauce to Jewish continuity. Intermarriage, assimilation and apathy are rearing their ugly heads in many new areas. Yet, if the next generation is able to accept the Jewish traditions from the preceding generation, we will be able to maintain that tradition, which has remained intact through millennia. In order to keep young Jewish professionals, who often by necessity live fairly secular lives, interested in Judaism, one must understand the ways Judaism and secular culture have changed and find the best way to keep Jewish culture whole without impinging upon secular culture.

Passover and the High Holy Days are arguably the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays; however, the average Jew in the United States today has not been given the basic skill set necessary to access our tradition. Synagogues are there to provide access to our rich and living heritage, but synagogues must take that responsibility in stride and use all the tools in the arsenal to attract the next generation.

Rabbi Daniel Kraus in an orthodox rabbi, entrepreneur and marketer who uses his gift of innovation and creativity to reach and engage affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. Rabbi Kraus currently serves as a Rabbi and the Director of Community Education at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York. A native of Melbourne, Australia, Daniel has been living in New York for the last 10 years and has been heavily involved in a range of Jewish organizations. Together with his wife Rachel, Rabbi Daniel has built a vibrant community of previously unaffiliated young Jewish professionals in the midtown Manhattan area, with over 7,000 people from diverse backgrounds participating in their programs over 7 years. Follow him at @rabbidkraus.