People who go to shul solely on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are regarded — where I come from, on New York’s Orthodox Lower East Side — with disdain. Not that anyone says anything; but it’s easy to think of Jews who make it to synagogue just once or twice a year as pathetic hypocrites.
It’s a good thing I’ve left the old neighborhood, because I myself have become a sporadic shulgoer — not quite a High Holy Day-only Jew, but close enough. So I’ve been thinking about what it is that draws me to maintain the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur synagogue connection, why I have just sat through several intense days of serious davening.
Some 12,000 of my fellow Israelis spent Rosh Hashanah in the Sinai, 500,000 went to our national parks. Tens of thousands will spend Yom Kippur bicycling down traffic-free boulevards.
But a combination of propriety and a sense of — call it civilizational duty, will keep me indoors and in shul.
Friends who are regular shulgoers tend to do so out of habit, for camaraderie, for “the children,” or out of a sense of obligation. I’m hard-pressed to think of many who say they go to commune with the Creator.
For me, going to shul is no fun. Only occasionally do I find it intellectually or spiritually rewarding; more often than not, it’s draining and tedious.
Yet even though my faith is wobbly, going to shul remains an authentic way of maintaining a tie with a tradition worth preserving. It’s also my way of acknowledging that not everything in life that’s worthwhile is fun. I think it was the Buddha who said, “Life is difficult.”
Paradoxically, I curtailed my shulgoing in earnest only after immigrating to Israel. Frum from birth, I began my synagogue experience in a shtibele led by the sainted Sassover Rebbe, Dovid Rubin, who, after the Shoah, rebuilt his life and his flock in a tenement storefront on the tough “Alphabet City” streets of the Lower East Side. His synagogue was subsequently fire-bombed by a Puerto Rican gang one summer in the 1970s.
After we moved to a relatively safer Jewish enclave, we experimented with a number of shuls — most memorably, a large pink Moorish structure on Madison and Montgomery streets whose spiritual leader was Rav Moshe Schisgal. The rabbi died at a tragically young age and arsonists burned the synagogue down. I vividly recall watching the flames consume the edifice.
By the time of my bar mitzvah, we had become members of Rabbi Seymour Nulman’s East Side Torah Center. It was our first professionally managed synagogue. The sanctuary was meticulously maintained (it was even air-conditioned) and services were conducted in the modern Orthodox style, with sermons in English and a prayer for Israel before musef.
In one form or another, I’ve spent my life in the elusive quest for the right shul. Why bother?
Personal history is part of it, but also because the synagogue is practically as old as Judaism itself. It’s an institution that probably originated during the Babylonian captivity, so that by the time of the Second Temple there were shuls up and down the Land of Israel.
Judaism prefers, as Isaac Klein points out in “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice,” public to private prayer.
But precisely because congregations are full of Jews, they can also be places full of annoyance, intrigue and hurt feelings. Yet going through life without serious synagogue-exposure is a mistake too many are making. Even during the High Holy Days, perhaps half of British and American Jewry skip synagogue altogether, while in Israel 60 percent of Jews stay away.
People have a right to reject “religion” — Lord knows our established “church” gives us plenty of reason to do so — but my hunch is the lack of attending synagogue isn’t a matter of principle, but of laziness.
Because what happens in synagogue is the hard work of maintaining a tradition which — however you want to interpret it — connects us to a common past and a shared vision for a unified future. Absent Jewish heritage, we are just a bunch of Hebrew-speaking gentiles.
While the synagogue most Israelis don’t attend is Orthodox, there is a cornucopia of options ranging from all shades of Orthodox, to Masorti, Progressive and even a nascent Reconstructionist presence.
Which is why I think Israelis who don’t know their way around a siddur or machzor are culturally illiterate.
It’s a little too convenient to blame Ovadia Yosef’s pre-Rosh Hashanah anti-secular outburst, or even Orthodox coercion in general, for Israelis’ alienation from their heritage.
But if Judaism — as religion, culture and history — doesn’t speak to you, the answer isn’t to go on a vacation.
The rabbis have disappointed us; maybe God has disappointed us. But if one understands shulgoing in its broader context, spending Yom Kippur on a bicycle seems like a terrible waste.
In 1920, Franz Rosenzweig wrote of the “potentialities [that] lie dormant even in a mere Yom Kippur Judaism.”
Six thousand miles away from the Lower East Side, that strikes me as worth thinking about.
Elliot Jager writes for the Jerusalem Post, where this column previously appeared.