When people ask me why I went to prison on Yom Kippur, I usually tell them, with a hint of guilt, that it’s to get out of going to shul. While the answer is partly a joke, I can't deny that wanting to get out of sitting through a synagogue service is in fact an incentive. Of course, it is also because volunteering to lead services for Jewish inmates in federal prison is a moving, rewarding, fascinating and meaningful experience.
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In theory, I have all the pieces in place to be an adamant shul-goer. I grew up Modern Orthodox and attended Jewish day school, I’m fluent in Hebrew and know the services inside-out, and I love my rabbi. But it’s been a long time since prayer, even progressive iterations that do away with Jewish exceptionalism and misogyny, has moved me.
My aversion to being in shul puts me in good company. I know so many passionate, dedicated Jews who spend their lives working in Jewish spaces, doing social justice activism and working on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But every Yom Kippur (and sometimes for Rosh Hashanah and Purim too) they force themselves to sit through services they don't connect with.
After spending my second year volunteering on Yom Kippur, I’ve shed my sense of guilt about wanting a get-out-of-shul-free card. During my time participating in the entire traditional Yom Kippur service in prison this year, I felt genuinely spiritually introspective, surrounded by people crying out for forgiveness for their crimes. Inmates are victims of a kind, too; of mass incarceration and the injustice that pervades the American legal system. While I was only able to affect change in the lives of a few individuals, the experience was meaningful because it helped orient me toward a more cohesive view of the issues inherent in the American prison system. What meant the most to me was that I was able to use Yom Kippur to pursue justice.
As far as High Holy Day-activism goes, my experience just scratches the surface; other activists have made far greater achievements. Just a few days ago, during Sukkot, Jewish clergy marched in solidarity with the black community in Ferguson Missouri. Activists in California used Sukkot as an opportunity to combat the state’s brutal drought. And two years ago on Rosh Hashanah, Occupy Judaism – a progressive activist group – brought over 1,000 Jews together to demonstrate for social and economic justice.
Jewish social justice activism is a fact of American life. On the High Holy Days (and, really, throughout the year), we shouldn’t force ourselves into ritualistic Jewish practices just for the sake of it. Neither should we feel the choice is binary: go to shul to pray or stay at home and watch TV. It’s easy to think that if services seem boring, unsatisfying or even offensive there’s no need to observe the holiday. That’s a false perception. We can observe Jewish holidays by moving beyond introspection and into action.
Those of us who don’t see shul as a venue for creating the change our tradition demands should take advantage of the ample opportunities the Jewish calendar provides for reflection and self-improvement by getting out and being socially active. The world is horribly broken. We should take every opportunity to fix it.
Benjy Cannon is the National Student Board President of J Street U. He studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland, where he sits on the Hillel Board. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.