Calling all once-a-year Jews:Its time to take on some responsibility

This is for all you once-a-year Bay Area Jews. You know who you are. You pony up for High Holy Day tickets, maybe even synagogue membership, shuffle to your seats, mumble through the responsive readings and race out the doors to freedom — your obligation fulfilled.

From my perch up above during Rosh Hashanah services this year, I looked out at the sea of you. What I saw made me cry.

Slumped over in your seats, your eyes glazed over, your head jerked when you caught yourself falling asleep. It’s no wonder we won’t be seeing you again anytime soon. The question is, why do you bother coming at all?

Now I don’t mean to seem high and mighty. Not too long ago, I was a maybe-once-every-few-years kind of Jew. My spiritual sustenance came from places outside synagogue walls. Most of the time, it still does. But I’ve come a long way since the day when a run in Central Park trumped Kol Nidre.

Back then, I preferred a Baptist church in Harlem to synagogue — with good reason. Church members greeted me with warm smiles and extended hands. I understood the words that filled the room, even if I didn’t buy into their meaning. And the music — the singing, clapping and dancing in the aisles — it brought the house down. It made my spirit soar, and I left the church saying to myself, “If synagogue felt this good, I’d be the most religious of Jews.”

But synagogue never felt like that. Only there for High Holy Days, I squirmed in the back and felt like an outsider. The words were meaningless, the people around me cold, and the mood stifling. Perhaps I felt like you?

So why do you show up for High Holy Days services? Sure, it’s the holiest time on the Jewish calendar, but what does that mean to you? Do you come “just because”? Are you driven by guilt, the need to make your parents or grandparents happy? You think pounding your chest on cue and reciting words you don’t understand will secure you a position in that Book of Life?

I’m hoping you attend services once a year because you’re looking for a connection. If that’s true, might I suggest you pick another time?

Try Simchat Torah or Purim — unabashed celebrations, unlike the downer services you’ve been choosing. Check out a Kabbalat Shabbat service on a Friday night — short, sweet and free of charge. Heck, you might even want to live on the edge and go to an all-night Shavuot Tikkun, or study session. You can wear jeans, meet people, exchange ideas, and you’ll even be thrown some snacks.

Synagogue officials who count on the cash they rake in for High Holy Day ticket sales may not like my idea. But this is about helping you, and in the long run, them. If you’re measuring synagogue worth on the High Holy Day experience, you’re selling yourself, the community and Judaism short.

Since 1995, a project called Synagogue 2000 has been grappling with ways to turn you on and keep you coming back. Ron Wolfson, co-founder of the project, explained that since synagogues are “the gateway” and “the No. 1 point of connection in the Jewish community,” a lot rides on your once-a-year visits.

But how can they welcome and engage thousands of Jews who stream into synagogues for the High Holy Days, when each of you ticket holders expects a service like the one you’ve always known?

“We’ve learned a lot,” said Wolfson, “but the work is definitely not over.”

While they keep at it, why don’t

you take on some responsibility?

Stop demanding satisfaction-guaranteed, spoon-fed spirituality. Get out there and do a little fishing and shul-shopping on your own. You’re lucky to live in a place that has choices. Who knows, you may even like what you see.

Jessica Ravitz recently completed her master’s in journalism at U.C. Berkeley. She can be reached at [email protected].

columnist wanted

Think you can write punchy columns about yourself and the Bay Area Jewish community? We’re looking for a new columnist who can add poignancy, humor, pathos and spirituality to The Column on a rotating basis. Send samples to [email protected].