In the Jewish faith, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are meant to be days of weighty confrontation with the issues they embody (especially issues of morality and mortality), as implied in their Hebrew appellation Yamim Noraim, the “Days of Awe.” For many rabbis, however, “awful days” might be a more accurate definition for these days, a mere three out of 365 by which reputations are often measured and employment decided. For rabbis whose contracts are up for renewal, the prayer refrain “On Rosh Hashanah it is decreed, and on Yom Kippur it is decided… who will live and who will die” has a quite literal meaning.
At the end of the fall holidays, many rabbis suffer through something called “the High Holy Day Review Committee.” Often these are meetings open to the whole congregation, and—as is the nature of such meetings—they are often attended by a disproportionate number of people who have a complaint rather than a compliment.
The operative assumption of such a meeting is that the degree to which one liked something is the barometer by which the High Holy Days are evaluated. But because liking or disliking is, by nature, subjective, comments at such meetings often cancel each other out.
Consider the following scenario, drawn from an actual post-High Holy Day review meeting: One person objects to the holiday melody used for chanting the Shema (Dt. 6:4) and wants the familiar and friendly Shabbat melody. The next person replies that he comes expecting to hear the holiday melody because it is different. The first person retorts that she does not come much during the year, and likes hearing what she knows—to which the second person replies that perhaps then she ought to come more often during the year.
Or this: One person objects to the Martyrology service on Yom Kippur being moved from the morning Yizkor (memorial) service to the afternoon service. The rabbi explains that, in addition to making the morning service even longer, she believes the Yizkor service plus the Martyrology yields a period of up to a full hour that is just too heavy. The person then says that since she is a Holocaust survivor, if the Martyrology and Yizkor are not reattached, she is quitting the congregation.
Or this: One person objects to the rabbi’s sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur all being about Judaism, saying she is not religious; instead, she says, there should have been sermons about current events. Someone else replies that such matters can be dealt with the rest of the year; on the holidays, the focus should be on more
Where did the idea arise that the Yamim Noraim services need to be reviewed? This is not, after all, a Broadway show, yet too often the post-holiday open meeting—tellingly referred to in many communities as the “postmortem”—functions as if a staged performance is being critiqued, with particular attention to the quality of the entertainment.
The review of the holidays might not be so distressing if the analogy to a stage presentation were at least consistent. If congregations correctly understood that the rabbi is, and needs to be, in the role of director, then the accountability assigned to the rabbi after the services would at least correlate with the responsibility assigned to the rabbi before the services.
In the theater, someone is ultimately responsible for looking at the bigger picture—at the total production—and making decisions about what stays and what goes, where things happen, how much of what each faction wants can be accommodated, and what is going to be cut. The customers, musicians, and actors may not all be happy with the decisions, but someone has to make them.
Synagogue High Holy Day committees used to deal with necessary logistics such as childcare, assignment of ritual honors, and ushering. Now such committees often compete with the rabbi for control and content of the services. Put differently, such committees disempower rabbis from their central role as the director of the High Hoy Day services—the ones who, with a vision of the whole, must make necessary decisions between competing factions and among competing wants and needs in order to shape a service that enables those praying to be supported in their spiritual work.
It is important for feedback to be solicited; the problem with High Holy Day review committees is that they do not shape a conversation that emerges from a context, but function instead as something like a customer-satisfaction focus group, with volunteer committee members refereeing among personal preferences.
The chair of such a committee should set a different tone for the meeting by asking the right questions. By way of example, these could include:
- Given the diverse nature of our community, did our services manage to provide comfortable access for most people?
- Given the need to balance personal reflection and prayer with communal participation and congregational singing, did our services allow enough time for both?
- Given that many of our members are familiar with the liturgy while many others are not, did our services hit a reasonable balance between fidelity to the core structure and innovation?
- Given that this year we decided to try a new innovation, do we have enough sense of the response to try it again, drop it, or modify it?
- Given that we assign the final responsibility for shaping the services to the rabbi, are there suggestions you might want to offer to her for consideration for next year?
- Given that there are many opportunities for spiritual enrichment, what was one moment during the services that you felt was particularly powerful for our community?
For our communities to fulfill the high expectations we have for them, we need to think in terms of “we” and not “me.” Congregants should come to the High Holy Days with the expectation of working on teshuvah (repentance and resolution), and then “rate” the services in terms of how well the services supported that work. That would be an authentic indicator of how well a community and its rabbi work together to accomplish the holy work of the season of repentance.