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Rabbi Leah and Rabbi Perry Berkowitz Headshot

Have the Jews Left the Synagogue?

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In about a week's time, thousands of Jews will flock to synagogues to mark the
High Holydays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and culminating
with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. And yet, while thousands will go to the synagogue, thousands will not. Indeed, each year, the large numbers of unaffiliated Jews in the United States grows larger and larger. Many Jews -- especially young people -- have nowhere to go, or go nowhere. Why?

There are many reasons for this. In order to attend High Holyday services, congregations of all branches of Judaism require synagogue membership so as to obtain entry tickets. Some congregations allow non-members to purchase tickets, which can be costly. While synagogue membership and joining a congregation is important, many unaffiliated people are not yet ready to make that financial commitment before attending. Hence, they miss out on the High Holyday experience.

Another reason for those who stay away from synagogue on the High Holydays is
because those with no background find the services with their extensive Hebrew liturgy to be a closed door for them in terms of understanding and appreciating what it's all about. Still others, including veteran worshipers (who drop out from attendance) find the services to be boring and lacking in meaning or raising problems of belief. Then for many, the classical liturgy does not speak to their cares or concerns. It seems remote from their lives or the issues of the day. Finally, much of the music utilized for these days, while beautiful and majestic, does not seem to connect -- especially with young people.

The net result of all this is that more and more Jews are going less and less to the
synagogue over the High Holydays. Some may be found at family dinners -- a kind of
pre-Thanksgiving or Fall "Passover seder-like" event -- but increasingly, they are
absent from the synagogue. This group is growing, whether it be those who have
never attended because it did not seem right for them or those who have attended
and have dropped out.

This situation is itself part of a larger trend that finds many Jews, especially younger Jews, loosening and then losing their ties with their ancestral heritage. For centuries the synagogue and school have been at the heart of Jewish continuity. They have been the institutions that have provided the spiritual fuel that kept the Jew, qua Jew, going no matter what the conditions that surrounded them. As ties to these institutions weaken, the future of the Jewish community and its varied agencies and other institutions is threatened.

At best, many Jews find Judaism to be a lovely ethnic pastiche of chicken matzo
ball soul and pastrami sandwiches with a few Jackie Mason jokes thrown in or at
worst an anachronistic irrelevancy that one associates with their grandmother or
grandfather.

In order to address this situation, our congregation, East Side Synagogue, has
presented High Holyday services that are open to unaffiliated and disconnected Jews.
We especially reach out to those from Reform, Conservative and non-affiliated
backgrounds. We make these services available at no charge with no tickets or reservations needed. During these services, to which anyone can just walk in,
we look to confront and respond to many of the above issues which can cause
people to stay away from the synagogue especially over the High Holyday period.

Thus, the services are mostly in English to aid and increase understanding and
appreciation. Through inspirational commentary we seek to apply the themes
of the Holydays to the life of those who attend. We utilize -- beyond the haunting
traditional chant -- contemporary instrumental and vocal music. We link the service
both to social justice called tikkun olam (fixing/healing the world) and to inner
work called tikkun ha-nefesh (fixing/healing the self). By being both joyous and
contemplative, we look to offer a spiritual encounter that is user-friendly and
opens people to the deeper experience of these days as it resonates with
contemporary relevance and personal meaning.

Our conviction is that you can't practice Judaism with your grandfather's heart
but must approach these days with a new, fresh , different and vibrant style
that speaks to someone who lives and struggles in the 21st Century.

We've been at it for 26 years and thousands and thousands of people (including
seekers, the intermarried, people of all faiths or no faith) have crossed our threshold
and had their lives deepened and transformed. Our success shows that there is
a real spiritual hunger for meaning and passion and that Judaism can provide it.
Our doors are open and all you have to do is cross the threshold. No requirements
but an open mind and an open heart.


For more information on the East Side Synagogue services that take place in New
York City on Rosh Hashanah Saturday, September 19th and Yom Kippur, Sunday night
September 27th and Monday, September 28th, call 212-209-6801 or visit the website
at www.besthighholydayservices.com,


Rabbi Leah Berkowitz and Rabbi Perry Berkowitz are a dynamic and unique brother and
sister rabbinic team. They are graduates of Barnard College and Columbia University
respectively. They have been trained in all the movements of Judaism from Orthodox
and Conservative and Reform to Reconstructionism and Renewal. They hold advanced
degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where they both completed all
doctoral course work in Jewish theology, philosophy, ethics and mysticism. They
have taught and touched Jews of all backgrounds and conditions for three decades.
They both serve as the rabbis of East Side Synagogue.