The sun is streaming through the colorful stained-glass windows of a sanctuary that seems to reach halfway to heaven. The booming New York-accented voice of the rabbi is exhorting the congregants to choose wisely in the coming year, making the point majestically in both English and Hebrew. The blue-robe-clad choir members are putting a melodious emphasis on the occasion for throngs of well-dressed congregants.
The High Holy Days are about being in the ultimate spiritual moment, feeling the power of something greater than ourselves and making memories that last a lifetime while we reflect, repent and resolve to do better. Whether we seek to replicate the experiences of our youth or to find something entirely different, this is the time of year when Jewish people are thinking about a spiritual home, a special space to observe the High Holy Days.
There are many factors to consider. People with children want to consider the educational environment, while people without children or empty nesters may want to be where their friends are. Location may be the key consideration for some people, while others will go a few extra miles for the personality of the rabbi or a special relationship with a congregation.
Then there are the philosophical reasons for joining a particular synagogue or simply deciding to worship there for the holidays. Different streams of Judaism appeal to different people, and many of the streams are undergoing internal changes at the moment.
The Reform movement, the nation’s largest stream of Judaism with 900 congregations, will have a new leader in 2012. Some people within the Union for Reform Judaism have been openly critical of the new leader for being on the rabbinic cabinet of J Street and the board of the New Israel Fund, two organizations that promote left-wing causes that some say could be threatening to Israel. Other people in the URJ have rushed to the leaders’ defense, claiming that he represents a new form of Zionism that allows for differences of opinion.
The Conservative movement has developed a strategic plan to improve its governance, reduce the financial burden on member synagogues and refocus its attention on “sacred communities.” The plan for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism calls for the focus on three core areas: strengthening “kehillot,” or sacred communities; creating an integrated educational system for preschool through high school in coordination with other movement arms; and developing new congregations and leadership. United Synagogue serves as a resource to its 650 affiliated congregations across North America.
Orthodox Judaism remains a small group in the United States: 750 congregations or 6 percent of American Jewry, but, with more than four children per family, the Orthodox claim the largest number of affiliated Jews younger than 40. Orthodox Judaism has several branches of its own, represented by Orange County synagogues. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, commonly referred to as the OU, largest organization of Orthodox synagogues in the U.S., has nearly 1,000 affiliated synagogues. The National Council of young Israel is an umbrella organization for 146 Orthodox congregations with approximately 25,000 member families in North America. Chabad, a Chasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism, has an estimated 3,300 institutions around the world in 70 countries.
The beliefs of each stream of Judaism are much better experienced than described in a brief column, and the individual congregations have something of their own to contribute to each person’s experience. Whether it is the powerful spirit of the High Holy Days or the ongoing sense of comfort that synagogue membership can bring, the month of Elul gives everyone a chance to explore Jewish beliefs and synagogue connections, and the month of Tishrei offers new beginnings for all.
L’Shanah Tovah from the Schneider family and the staff of Orange County Jewish Life!