My secular Rosh Hashanah

September 18, 2014 13:01

It is a question I am asked at least once a year. Why do I, a secular Jew, attend a Rosh Hashanah service? At a Conservative shul, no less.

Having been brought up in an Orthodox German community as a young refugee from Germany in New York City I, of course, attended shul every Shabbat and on all yomtovim.

At the age of 11, I was part of the men's choir (women's voices were not allowed) and sung in the "high tenor", soprano-like section with other boys whose voices had not yet broken.

So I was quite knowledgeable about the services in an Orthodox synagogue - particularly the musical portion of the service. My mother had been a singer in the Berlin Philharmonic Choir until 1933, when Jewish voices were no longer permitted. So I also had some background regarding music and singing.

Part of my answer, then, is music. And another part is content. Some of the prayers, such as the Al Chait Shechetonu, still speak to me - this prayer in particular lists primarily secular sins, on which everyone can, and should reflect. There are also other sections in the prayer book I find attractive - and universal, not necessarily just Jewish.

We may hope the next generation will be better educated Jewishly

I suppose there is also an element of recalling one's youth. The shul I attend has a wonderful mixed men and women's choir, which, from time to time, performs old, well-known melodies, which I enjoy.

Of course, Rosh Hashanah is a religious holiday, with primarily religious issues, items, and history. But it is also a time for reflection on my own form of Judaism. Nearly 20 years ago, my friend, the late Professor Isaiah Berlin, asked me to get him a seat for Yom Kippur at my synagogue. He stayed nearly all day in the first row and was both reading a book and seriously listening to the service and participating.

Some of the parishioners asked: "Who is that pious man in the front row so deeply involved in the service?" Isaiah, though completely secular, also wanted to do this from time to time to recall his youth, and remind him of the religious nature of our culture.

I can completely understand why many or most secular Jews do not attend religious services. Finding a place within Judaism can be difficult. In the hierarchy of Jewish religion, I attend a synagogue that some would consider treif and others would consider too religious. I attend, as it is part of a heritage that I cherish, even if I no longer practise the religion.

Today, the majority of Jews self-define as secular. They have a difficult task to decide what, if anything, to do on religious holidays. It is easier in Israel, which offers all kinds of non-religious holiday activities on the traditional yomtovim.

Today, Israel is also meeting the challenge of educating the children of the secular majority. One of the Posen Foundation's signature programmes is the Ofakim project at Tel Aviv University, which trains Israel's future teachers in Jewish history, culture philosophy etc, from a cultural point of view. This is now the programme used in Israel's state Mamlachti (not the religious Mamlachti dati) school system.

We may all hope that the next generation - in Israel and the UK - will grow up better educated Jewishly. In the meantime, my attending synagogue is part of the heritage into which I was born, and which I am able to value at the same time as I do not practise the religion.

September 18, 2014 13:01

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