How Are These High Holy Days Different

How are these High Holy Days Different from other High Holy Days?

Many people who have recently visited TBA have asked me if we are really still planning to have the High Holy Days Services in the sanctuary? The answer is Yes (thank you Mark Slifkin). Even though the entire Chidush project will be completed in time for the dedication on February 25, the sanctuary, along with the extraordinary audiovisual system, will be ready for the High Holy Days.

The physical appearance is not the only thing that will be different this year. Jessica, Brett and I spent the last year planning. We read a lot, attended conferences and seminars, met with colleagues and musicians and spent countless hours amongst ourselves reflecting and brainstorming. It is not that we thought that our Services were not good, it is just that we took the message of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov to heart: “If you are not a better tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?”

To lead us in the right direction we started by focusing on you, the thousand people who join us for Services. We honestly feel honored that you chose Temple Beth Am and therefore you deserve the most spiritual, intellectual and joyous experience. The challenge is that you are a diverse group. Some of you come only during the High Holy Days and some almost never miss a Shabbat Service; some grew up in a traditional family and some have little Jewish knowledge; some chose Judaism later in life and some never did, yet lovingly support their Jewish spouses and children. Despite that, we still believe that there is a Service that can be meaningful for all of you. I’ll give you two examples:

Kavanot (Context and Intention)

As I’m writing theses lines we are all devastated by the death and damage in flood-ravaged Louisiana and earthquake-stricken Italy. Are these catastrophes the doing of a punishing God as may be implied by the famous words of the prayer “who by fire, who by water, who by earthquake”? I definitely don’t believe so. But without the right context, the ancient prayers have a potential to lose their beautiful and transformative quality, and to sound dull and unrelatable to people in the 21st century. What we will do is not omit the difficult traditional prayers but add a kavanah, an intention and explanation, that will make the prayers once again move our hearts as well as our minds.  

Aliyot (Honors)

Like many synagogues we took advantage of the High Holy Days to thank and acknowledge our members for their charity and volunteer work at the Temple and outside. While expressing gratitude is an essential Jewish virtue we strongly believe in, we had to admit that using the High Holy Days Services for that purpose has some drawbacks. Since we are blessed with many people who are generous with their resources, time and skills, we kept adding aliyot until we realized that at times they interrupt the natural flow of the Service and was making our Services longer. 

We also heard comments (completely unjustifiable) that it looks like those who are part of the “inner circle” get all the honors, and those who aren’t seen as worthy weren’t getting any honors. And as you know, perception is at time more important than reality. 

But even more important, we believe that the honor of an Aliyah should be used as a way to draw people into Judaism and the life of the congregation, not as a reward to those who have already become immersed in it. It gives us the opportunity to offer Aliyot and to give a special blessing to those who for example, survived an accident or a surgery and to those who were blessed with a new child or grandchild. 

I am looking forward to seeing you all during the High Holy Days and hopefully before. 

Shannah Tovah, 
Rabbi Alon Levkovitz