For many Jews, the High Holy Days represent a way of affirming that they still are part of the Jewish people – a way of demonstrating that they haven’t yielded to assimilation, haven’t broken the ancient chain of the Jewish people’s survival and continuity. Being with our people at services says that no matter how far we may have drifted from active involvement with the Jewish religion, we’re still proud to be Jews.
We still care about being Jewish – even if we’re not very religious and are not sure how we feel about the content of those services. At some level we want to connect or reconnect with our Jewish heritage, but are not familiar with the liturgy. Even those who do attend on a fairly regular basis desire a deeper understanding of the prayers of the High Holy Days
Recognizing this growing need, synagogues across Orange County are providing user-friendly, participatory and innovative opportunities for congregants to learn about and experience the High Holy Days.
Young Israel of Orange County is offering a completely separate and unique special one-hour “High Holy Day Learner’s Service for Adult Beginners.” It is offered in conjunction with The Jewish Flame, a modern Orthodox outreach program developed in the 1970s at Columbia University. Rabbi Dov Fischer was among its founders and while the program had been initiated to address the needs of its founders’ contemporaries who sought a high-level Jewish learning program, it continues to this day and offers sophisticated and intellectual programming.
“It is not orthodox with a capital O,” said Rabbi Fischer, “but appeals to people who, while they seek traditional Judaism, never got much from going to shul.” He also pointed out that this High Holy Day Learner’s Minyan is an adjunct to the type of educational programming YIOC offers on a regular basis. “Since our beginning we have emerged as a major Jewish learning center offering five classes a week with more than 120 people attending,” he added.
The YIOC Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Beginners services, conducted by Rabbi Fischer, will include the classic prayers in a new context and format.
People may worship at the main service, the one-hour High Holy Day service or both. Rabbi Fischer will conduct the one-hour service as well, along with Rebbetzin Ellen. The special Beginners Service includes Shofar sounding and will take place on Rosh Hashanah at 1:30 p.m.; on Yom Kippur the special service will take place at 2:30 p.m. and will include Yizkor and the Traditional “Al Chait” Viduy Confessional. There is no charge, but reservations are necessary.
Chabad of Mission Viejo is also offering different types of services and programs for the High Holy Days to meet the diverse needs of the community. The learner’s service, for those who don’t have an understanding of how traditional services are conducted, is designed to provide insight into the liturgy and the meaning of the prayers.
These interactive sessions enable attendees to learn about the prayers, so they may have a meaningful holiday experience. “After attending these sessions,” said Rabbi Zalman Marcus, “many eventually become more comfortable with the traditional service.” The learner’s minyan will be held on the second evening of Rosh Hashanah and at 9 a.m. in the morning on Yom Kippur.
In addition to the learner’s minyan, Chabad of Mission Viejo also offers a family experience – providing the same kind of experience for children and their families. This short program, designed for children, offers an interactive environment that provides a meaningful experience for the family. The family experience will also be offered both on the first day of Rosh Hashana at 4 p.m. and at 10 a.m. on Yom Kippur morning. The success of these programs is evident in the number of people they attract: about 150 for both adult sessions and more than 200 for the family program.
“We want people in the community regardless of their background to find meaning in the holidays,” said Rabbi Marcus. “Rather than impose what the services ‘should be’, we try to meet people where they are. For many, prayer is not meaningful because it is not understood – very much like Opera. If one doesn’t understand what’s going on, it is difficult to appreciate the experience.”
At University Synagogue in Irvine, both members and non-members are welcome to attend the annual Hebrew Marathon. Sue Penn, director of education, pointed out that the four-hour session familiarizes attendees who may not know Hebrew, but may also be uncomfortable with the liturgy. The marathon immerses attendees in Hebrew study, using the Machzor so that they can join in services for High Holidays. This year it will be held on Sunday, September 9, from 1 to 5 p.m. It is of course free for members; non-members are welcome for a fee of $80. Attendees may bring a dairy lunch and snacks; drinks will be provided. In addition, the “JEWISH, ALIVE AND AMERICAN” intensive survey course offered annually covers all things Jewish and explores the complete Jewish holiday cycle with special focus on the High Holy Days.
Congregation Bnai Israel in Tustin has conducted an “Experiential Prayer and Text Study” classes for its adult and teen members for the past five years. Rabbi Dan Kaiman leads the smaller services that have proven to be very popular, providing members a more participatory service that offers greater accessibility to the prayers. The adult programs will take place Monday, September 17, after the sermon and Tuesday night, September 25, after Kol Nidre. There are also special services for teens and young adults.
“These services have been very successful,” said Sandy Klein, executive director, “with more people participating every year.”
Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine will hold a class, “Preparation for the High Holidays” for members, on Thursday, September 6, led by Rabbi Leah Lewis. The class will focus on the key themes and meaning of the prayers and liturgy of the High Holy Days. Rabbi Lewis will also help members prepare spiritually for this special time of year.
The number and variety of pre-High Holy Day programs demonstrate the changing demographics of the Jewish community in Orange County. There was a time in our history when attending services was the norm and the High Holy Days were part of the Jewish community’s behavior. Many of us came from that background. However, we all know that times have changed; and so as these programs indicate, congregations are reaching out in new ways to engage those in our community who seek a greater connection to their heritage – and the community is responding.
For more information about any of these programs, please contact the specific congregation.
What’s a Learner’s Minyan?
The purpose of the Learner’s Minyan is to make the traditional service more accessible. Aimed at people new to Judaism, new to a particular stream of Judaism or new to participation in the synagogue, the Learner’s Minyan is designed to deepen one’s understanding of Jewish prayer and liturgy.