New Twist on An Ancient Tradition

Not your Nana's Rosh Hashanah service

Sep 9, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Valley Temple in Wyoming is a small synagogue just off Springfield Pike. In fact, it’s so small that you’d probably drive right by it if you weren’t looking for it. But this small Reform Jewish congregation has a pretty big idea for getting people reconnected with their Judaism for the High Holy Days.

Rosh Hashanah, also known as “the Jewish New Year” and the beginning of the High Holy Days, falls on Friday, Sept. 18 this year. Normally the High Holy Days are members-only affairs for ticket-holding members of a Jewish congregation. They involve ritual, sermon and special musical genres.

This year, though, Rabbi Sandford Kopnick has decided to turn tradition on its ear.

“It occurred to me last year while looking at how many people were at our service for the evening of Rosh Hashanah that there were a lot of people who weren’t there,” Rabbi Kopnick says. “They were members. And I couldn’t help but think about how many people were not members anywhere. What were they doing?”

So Kopnick had the idea for a Rosh Hashanah service for non-affiliated Jews. A year ago he brought up the idea with the Temple’s Ritual Committee. It would be a service that still felt like a High Holy Day service, but without as much ritual or formality. There would be no ticket, no fee, no proof of membership: You just show up.

“That’s very unusual, I’m finding,” Kopnick says. “Because Jews are saying, ‘Are you kidding? You’re giving away the store!’ And my attitude is, that doesn’t help.”

Just as mega-churches have sprung up in the Christian faith and are trying new approaches to attract twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who have little or no tradition of attending weekly sermons, their Jewish counterparts want to appeal to a new generation, too.

According to Kopnick, studies have shown that only 40 percent of the Jewish community is affiliated at any one time. It was the other 60 percent that he had in mind when suggesting this service. So now, a year later, Valley Temple is hosting the first “Rosh Hashanah Reconnect,” a service for unaffiliated Jews who want to reconnect with their Jewish faith and celebrate the High Holy Days in a more contemporary manner.

Valley Temple is the second smallest Reform Judaism congregation in Cincinnati. Kopnick acknowledges that their modest temple in the middle of nowhere isn’t a place for big innovation, but as far as he knows they’re the only community to add a completely new service in addition to the traditional Rosh Hashanah service.

“There may be other folks who are doing it,” he says, “but we don’t have a Web site, ‘Are You Turning Rosh Hashanah on its’ ”

Much like Christmas and Easter for Christians, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Jewish holidays that fill the synagogue. So when Rabbi Kopnick noticed dwindling attendance, he thought one reason might be a problem with the product, not the message.

“We get into a tradition of what the services should be … but there’s very little variety in how those services are presented,” Kopnick says. “The architecture might be different, or the rabbi might be a better orator than the next, but there’s very little that’s different (from congregation to congregation).”

Jenny Dapper, a member of the temple’s Board of Directors who also helped in developing Rosh Hashanah Reconnect, explained that they began experimenting with their Friday night Sabbath service once a month. They hosted a more laid back service with contemporary music called “Friday Nights Live.” With a full band and some keyboards, tambourines and even a violin thrown in, it could get pretty rowdy.

They wanted to bring that same kind of contemporary sound and informality to the Reconnect, but without so much of the rowdiness.

“We thought, what would it be if we stirred the pot a little bit and had a more musical service that had a much more contemporary sound and dispensed with some of the trappings but still felt like it was a High Holy Day evening service,” Kopnick says. “Would that make it so that people who have kind of decided that it’s too formal or too ritualistic, would they decide that they may want to try again to connect with the holiday?”

The service will be more contemporary, a little more upbeat and non-traditional. There will be no sermon, livelier music and even a bit of humor.

The service, which takes place at 6 p.m., in addition to the traditional Rosh Hashanah service at 8 p.m., is intended to reconnect people with their Jewish faith rather than inspire new converts. The focus of the High Holy Days, or “days of awe,” is on sin and repentance, which can be kind of heavy for someone’s first foray into a new religion, Kopnick says.

Rather, the service is meant for Jews who are new to town, who are younger and have not found a congregation yet or have just become disillusioned with Judaism.

“I am of the belief, because I know a lot of people for whom this is the case, that something happened growing up or when they got married or something happened that made it so that they just don’t want to be part of organized Judaism,” Kopnick says. “And I want to show that we’re concerned about them, and that at least one time of the year, when they least expect it, we’re willing to go out on a limb and try something else.”

Kopnick is quick to add that he doesn’t have an issue with the traditional approach to the High Holy Days. He says he feels strongly that Judaism needs to respond to what people need and want rather than insisting they accept the provided model.

“People are voting with their feet,” Kopnick says.

“They still come in big numbers to the High Holy Days, but a lot of people are still sitting it out. And, first of all, they should know we notice, and they should also know that we’re willing to work with them. And I hope that this is the first step. We’ll see what happens.”