Life & Culture

How to make three-times-a-year into a habit

Will you be making a rare trip to shul this Rosh Hashanah? Susan Reuben used to be like you


The most rebellious thing I ever did as a teenager was to go to school on a school day.

I was 16, it was first day Rosh Hashanah, and I was going through the obligatory rejection-of-Judaism phase — one that was to continue for many years to come.

I waited till my parents had set off for shul (there was no way they were going to get me into that place) and then headed for the bus — the ironic nature of my rebellion not lost on me.

When I burst into the middle of my A Level music class and explained why I was there, my teacher was a bit bemused — but she was hardly going to send me home in disgrace for turning up at a lesson.

Looking back, it’s not hard to understand why I wasn’t more enthusiastic about attending synagogue, even three times a year. The rabbi always took the opportunity in his sermon to exhort the less-committed members of the congregation to come more frequently.

It’s of little surprise, therefore, that I couldn’t see the appeal — I never heard anything that showed me why I might choose to turn up.

Now I’m all Jewishly engaged and a weekly synagogue attender, but I still don’t like shul on Rosh Hashanah.

And why not? Because of those pesky three-times-a-year shul goers.

I feel pretty conflicted and guilty about this. Just because I go to synagogue every week I do not — truly I do not — feel that anyone else ought to.

I don’t think I have the right to express an opinion on whether people choose to pray three times a day, three times a year — or never. I don’t even believe in God.

Despite this, I have a tendency to have thoughts both low and unholy on the High Holy Days. I have them as I queue to present my entry ticket when I’m used to striding cheerfully in; as I sit in the service with the congregants directly behind me chatting in my ear; as I pass teenage girls on their phones in the toilets; as I find myself without the desire to sing because no one else around me knows the tune.

Often we aren’t even in one of the main shul spaces, but in an overflow venue that has been set up to accommodate the crowds.

The acoustic is wrong, the chairs uncomfortable, the ruach elusive. It’s all just not right.

I could take these sentiments in one of two directions. I could embrace them more thoroughly and become a true synagogue busybody. It would mean complaining loudly about other congregants’ behaviour — not only on Yomtov but throughout the year.

I would need to be sure to 
sigh audibly if a child walked 
into the service and to object vociferously if someone were not dressed appropriately. I would also have to cultivate sidelines in gossip and trenchant resistance to change.

I don’t think we have anyone in our community sufficiently skilled in this role, so there’s definitely an opening. It would take quite a lot of work to get properly good at it, and I’m really a bit young for the position, but there would be much satisfaction to be had, I feel.

Alternatively, I could just get over myself.

The first time I ever went to New North London Synagogue (where we’ve now been members for 13 years or so) was, in fact, first day Rosh Hashanah. We were recently married, had just moved to Finchley, and decided that it would be nice to pop along to one of the local shuls, it being the time of year for that sort of thing.

Our choice of New North London was completely arbitrary — we might just as easily have picked Kinloss, or Finchley Reform, Finchley Progressive or Finchley Methodist. (OK — perhaps not the last one.)

But from the moment I walked through the door, I felt at home. I didn’t know that it was massively more crowded than usual; I didn’t care that I was surrounded by folk who never usually went there either. I felt like I belonged with these people, despite not knowing a soul.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg gave a sermon that didn’t bully or cajole, or even acknowledge that many of those in the room might not be the most committed shul goers — but that linked Jewish teaching to the modern world with passion and eloquence.

So, this Rosh Hashanah, there may be another couple like us, walking in for the first time.

And who am I to be sniffy and grumpy because I don’t like big crowds of strangers, or pious and smug because I am a regular?

I’ll still be looking forward to Shabbat, though — when it’s all small and normal again.



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