On a visit to Israel a couple of weeks ago, I was introduced to two rabbis, one from Memphis and another from Jerusalem, neither of whom I had met before. Like the classic "May the Force be with you" line from Star Wars, we concluded our brief conversation with a simple, heartfelt, "Good luck, friend". The time affectionately known in the rabbinic world as the "busy season" was approaching.
Worldwide, and across the religious spectrum, this is the time of year when rabbis finally get to see the numbers in shul they (apparently) dream of all year long. And according to that most cherished of rabbinic clichés, every rabbi knows that this is the once-yearly opportunity to make an impact and, hopefully, play a part in increasing the Jewish identity of the less-affiliated.
But, growing up in a United Synagogue community in North London, I recall sitting in shul on Rosh Hashanah and wondering what things looked like from the other side of the pulpit. What was the rabbi thinking, looking at the pews filled with people he saw only once a year? Did things look the same way facing west as they did facing east? Of course, this isn't the sort of thing a kid would actually ask a rabbi. So my question remained unanswered for years.
Today, however, I am privileged to serve as a community rabbi myself of a young and growing United Synagogue shul. Nowadays, I am the one who faces west rather than east at the front of the shul. So now I have a chance, at last, to answer my own question: What does the busy season look like from the other side?
There are two possible perspectives that rabbis can take on this annual frenetic focus on shul. Some might choose to look around the shul and wonder where all these people are on the other 362 days a year. Some might wonder whether their attendance is anything more than simply fulfilling a yearly chore of showing up on the right day at the right time (not before 11am).
These three days a year are a source of profound inspiration
But there is an alternative approach, and it is this that I personally choose to adopt on the High Holy Days. To me, these three days a year are a source of profound inspiration. Each year, I look around the shul and marvel at the strength of the Jewish spirit. I think about what a true celebration of community it is, how people of all ages, personalities and levels of religious observance come together as one in order to affirm their Jewish identity.
Their presence alone on these days, in a world in which identity itself seems ever-more fluid, is a serious and meaningful statement of commitment to Jewish heritage and tradition.
Now, if this was the sum total of the inspiration that these days have to offer a rabbi, I could comfortably say "Dayenu". But it isn't.
My own highlight of the High Holy Days actually arrives during the Torah reading on Yom Kippur. The shul itself is as full as it gets. But in a side room at this point in the service, I lead an open forum for young adults at which they are able to raise, question and debate any issues about Judaism they want.
The accountancy firm Deloitte predicts that, by 2025, "millennials", the group of young people born between 1980 and 1999, will make up 75 per cent of the global workforce. Yet, survey after survey shows that millennials want something very different from the workplace culture than that of previous generations. According to bestselling author and communications coach Carmine Gallo, millennials, "place far greater emphasis on purpose, passion and meaning. They want to work with teams of like-minded people who are connected to something bigger than themselves."
I believe Gallo is correct in his assessment because I am a millennial myself. What's more, that search for "purpose, passion and meaning" isn't limited to the workplace alone; it pervades every aspect of the thinking and lifestyle of today's young adults.
The High Holy Days simply provide a unique opportunity to see it in a Jewish context. The questions they ask me are invariably moving, inspirational and reveal an entire community of future leaders of British Jewry who reflect deeply on life and its meaning. Each year, I leave the session with them on Yom Kippur more humbled and inspired than the year before.
That, to me, is the view from the High Holy Day pulpit. And it is one that gets better, not worse, every year.