The Festival Dilemma
By Alex Kats
Each year at about this time, a few weeks out from Rosh Hashana, I start to feel a little nervous and anxious, but not for the reasons that you might expect. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur of course are the days of awe when Jews atone and are judged, so it is very common for people to dread their imminent arrival. In fact, in some places and some communities, the entire month of Elul leading up to the festivals is a month of reflection and submission, such is the foreboding nature of the festivals. But my trepidation has little to do with solemnity, or even with the nature of the festivals themselves.
You see, for the last eighteen and a half years, I haven’t once missed going to the synagogue on a Shabbat morning. Some weeks I do virtually nothing Jewish, but I still nonetheless somehow make sure to turn up in synagogue on a Saturday morning. And even when I travel, I make sure to be in a city with a shule, at least over Shabbat. I think I have been to more than 500 shules in more than 20 countries. It is by far the greatest outward weekly expression of my Judaism.
I enjoy the social, cultural, religious, liturgical, musical, traditional and culinary elements of the Saturday morning service, and each week, one or a few of those elements speak to me and keep me inspired to come back next week. For these reasons and others, even when I am home, I like to vary the shules that I go to. In Melbourne alone I’ve probably been to more than 30 different minyanim over the last decade, and continue to mix things up. It is not uncommon for me to go to Chabad one week, Shira Hadasha the next week and Gandel Besen the following week. I also sometimes get to Hamayan, Shaarei Tefilah or Mizrachi. And these are just the somewhat regular ones. Despite all these though, Beit Aharon at Gandel Besen has become my somewhat regular and preferred shule, but by no means the only one I go to. And therein lies my dilemma for Rosh Hashana and rest of the festivals.
Most shules around the world use Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as the time to raise funds and build up their memberships. After all, those are the days when most shules are at their peak, so it is a perfect opportunity to pitch to a captive audience and raise funds for the shule and for other worthy causes. It makes sense that it is also a good time for regular congregants to renew their memberships, and usually a membership fee also includes a seat for Yom Tov.
That is all well and good for people who go to shule just a couple of times a year, but always to the same shule, and it also works for people who go each week to the same shule. But for me it is always a quandary. Particularly during the festivals, I like to visit many shules to get a bit of inspiration from each one. Whereas sometimes I might go to three or four different shules in a month, on festival days I might go to three different shules on the one day. I don’t think it is practical or worthwhile to buy membership and seats at all the shules I might want to go to, even if I could afford it, so that is why I dread this time of year when shules start to send out reminder notices encouraging congregants and others to buy seats for Yom Tov.
Last year, for the first time in years, I didn’t dread this time of year because I was in New York. To start with, I was away from home and knew that I would only be in New York for a short period, so I didn’t feel any kind of loyalty to any of the shules that I went to. As such, for six different services over the course of Rosh Hashana and Shabbat, I went to six different shules on the Upper West Side. Apart from that, even if I wanted to express a sense of loyalty by paying a fee, at two of the shules I wouldn’t have been able to do so.
The minyan that I went to on the first day of Rosh Hashana was called Kol Haneshama, and met in a basement basketball court of a Manhattan Jewish school. Despite the temporary nature of the location, it was one of the best services I have ever been to. The community meets once a month on a Friday night and on occasional festivals. The core of the community is made up of long-time New York residents who never quite felt at home at any other shule, whilst the rest were itinerants like myself, from across the river, across the country or across the world. This was a service specifically for people who wanted to come to shule on Yom Tov, but felt like they didn’t really have a shule where they felt comfortable. As such, it was offered for free. Despite that, there was a lovely ambience with cosy furniture, an inspiring and very relevant sermon, a world class retired chazzan who had previously spent time in Australia and South Africa, and was joined around the Bima by his adult sons and their friends who provided the vocal backing, and a great Kiddush. There were also plenty of books and articles for those who wanted to read rather than pray.
On the second day, I went to a minyan called Darchei Noam, which also met in a Manhattan Jewish school, but in a slightly more salubrious classroom. The service was not quite as inspiring, but it too was free and essentially serviced the same people, though was slightly more egalitarian and didn’t have a world class chazzan. It also didn’t have a fancy Kiddush, but I did see quite a few people on the second day who were also at the other shule on the previous day. It may have lacked just a little bit of organisation, but was immensely inspiring because the two sermon givers spoke about their personal 9/11 experiences, the aftermath for the Jewish community, and how the days of awe inspire them. Their talks also inspired us, particularly since last year Rosh Hashana fell on September 9 and 10.
By the end of Rosh Hashana, I was feeling the awe that these days are supposed to bring. Probably for the fist time in a long time, Rosh Hashana had truly resonated with me, and I think the shules that I had gone to and their nature, played a really big part in that. This year however I am back home and the imminent sense of dread has returned. Knowing the community and the shules in town like I do, I know that this year for Rosh Hashana and the other festivals, many of them will be true places of inspiration and rejuvenation after a difficult year. Many are bringing out international chazanim who I’m sure will be great, and even the local chazzanim are usually quite excellent. But the dread remains.
As my most regular shule, I feel certain sense of loyalty to Beit Aharon, but I would ideally like to go to two or three different shules over the course of the festival. I know I should pay for a seat, but it seems almost unnecessary and foolish to pay for seats at two or three different shules and only use each one on one of the days, and have it sit idly on the other days. Hopefully, I will be able to make an arrangement with the various shules that I want to go to about my intentions, and then maybe my dread will pass. Hopefully I will be able to be inspired and rejuvenated in Melbourne this year like I was in New York last year, until at least Simchat Torah. Of all the festivals, that is my least favourite, but that is a story for another time…
Stay tuned for part two: The worst festival of the year