A Community Banding Together to Make High Holydays
How to Make the Effort a Spiritual & Communal Endeavor
A Letter from Rabbi David
Dear Kehilla Community,
For several weeks every late summer and fall, we as a synagogue put on for ourselves a series of extravagant occasions that constitute our communal pilgrimage. This is not a journey to some distant location, but a pilgrimage to our own selves, to our own community Zion. Between August 10 and September 26, I count 14 different events associated with the High Holydays adding up to more than 40 hours of programs! It is far too daunting for anyone to have ever added up the person-hours that we expend on this effort.
I find it interesting that so many people serving as staff or as volunteers have, over the years, told me that there was something about their efforts that they found joyful and redemptive in some way; that the extra effort made the High Holyday experience deeper, more meaningful and fun for them.
Given how amazing the result always seems to be, and also, given how the people providing their labor have found it spiritually beneficial, I find it odd that the distribution of effort has not been more equitable. In recent years we have become more aware how skewed it is and we are a bit concerned about burnout and other downsides of this reality.
Which is a too bad when you consider that a more even distribution would require very little extra effort on each member’s part. And more important than that, the little extra effort will actually enhance each member’s spiritual and joyous experience of the holydays and of their synagogue experience as a whole. Several people have expressed that, because they did not know that there was any problem in the distribution of effort, this is why they had not been involved before, but would be happy to help out. In light of that response, I thought that this needed to become more general knowledge.
Right after High Holydays last year and continuing to the present, there have been discussions and meetings, formal and informal, involving members at large, staff, board folk and service leaders considering lots of issues about improving our High Holyday experience. These issues included shortening the length of some of the services, enhancing the experience of children and teens on High Holydays, integrating the services with the celebrations that follow – from the Yom Kippur Break Fast through Simchat Torah two weeks later.
But one of the important items was about the redistributing and also spiritualizing of our contributions of service to the efforts that enable our Holyday programs to blossom. Here is some of the outcome of that discussion.
First, there is a consensus that when people volunteer their time, it should be designed so that they can experience it as joyful, and as an uplifting of their spirits.
And we know from many volunteers that this is already true for them. For example, people giving out prayerbooks report enjoying greeting people as they are about to enter the sanctuary. People collating materials for mailings report about the camaraderie, the schmoozing and the making of new friends. So we know that this is possible. We also want to see if we can make these experiences of service more spiritual, i.e. that they are experienced as part of the prayerful aspect of the holydays. We’re still working on that and are actually providing liturgy and rituals for this purpose.
Second, the kinds of efforts that are necessary should be broken down into discrete tasks, and made accessible in such a way that each person does not have to worry about biting off more than they can chew.
Our Co-Executive Director, Kaia Burkett, and our Volunteer and Program Coordinator, Beth Bittle, have broken all the tasks down and arranged each into a service nexus that will be carried out by members organized into what we are calling Service Chevras. For example, the Gateway Service Chevra will include people who are involved with enabling people to enter the High Holyday experience at the doorways or at ticketing or by directing people to the right areas of the building. Or the Break-Fast Service Chevra which will help in the setting up of the post-Yom Kippur repast at the synagogue.
Third, that this is holy service and needs to be as much part of every member’s experience of the High Holydays as possible.
Even though this third aspect reflects a long-standing Jewish tradition of individual and collective responsibility for the institutions of the community, it is a bit of a cultural change in Kehilla. How to move toward this ideal has been a matter of discussion and design. In these still ongoing discussions, many people have favored the idea that providing a discreet amount of service, say about two hours, should ultimately be an expected aspect of membership. We have not made it a requirement, since we would rather that people—now aware of the needs of the community—will come forward to provide a small amount of their time. But we do affirm, as always, that no one be expected to provide more effort than they can afford to expend.
Fourth, that people know that most of these efforts will not be happening while the services are going on. Most of the service work will be happening before or after services, so most volunteer efforts will not cause one to miss attending their favorite services.
So our first step is the creation of our Service Chevras and an invitation to members to “try out or try on” the experience of being part of this effort. In light of the communal necessity of generalizing our High Holyday efforts, I ask you to join in even though it is entirely voluntary. I ask that you refrain from service only if after some consideration you determine that your circumstances cannot allow you to do so this year. All of us will honor whatever you decide.
From this year’s experience we will learn how and whether this process works, and how to improve it for future years. We would like everybody to seriously consider that this effort can be fun and uplifting, that it helps members meet other members and enjoy their company, and that it can actually be a form of spirituality experienced in the fulfillment of the logistical. God too resides in the details.
You can learn more about our Service Chevras and sign up to volunteer here.