The 'High Holiday Jew' Phenomenon

Jewish living is more then just life cycle events. If we are really serious about passing our tradition 'L’dor Vador', from generation to generation, then we can’t just customize our observance.

There is much consternation in the Jewish community about “High Holiday Jews.” These are those of our brethren who, with the exception of the occasional life cycle event, show up at synagogue only during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many outreach programs and educational initiatives have been launched to entice these High Holiday Jews to participate more in Jewish life, but despite our best efforts, the challenge persists.

For synagogues, the challenge has grown more difficult in recent years. Our culture has become more individualized and more and more people prefer a la cart Judaism. By this I mean a fee-for-service model of Jewish practice. A family does not need to join a synagogue, but rather pays for their Jewish needs as they come up. If they have a baby boy, hire a mohel. If it’s time for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, then hire a tutor. If someone passes away, hire a rabbi. Why pay for a subscription when you can pay as you go?

Rosh Hashanah 5772 -Reuters - 27.9.11

To me the answer is obvious: Jewish living is more then just life cycle events. If we are really serious about passing our tradition L’dor Vador, from generation to generation, then we can’t just customize our observance. Judaism is a way of life, and being connected to and engaged by a community throughout the entire year adds meaning and a sense of purpose to our existence.

Despite this, there is certainly what to learn from once-a-year Jews, who are by no means a new phenomenon. There is a story in the Talmud (Hagiga 5a) about Rav Idi. Rav Idi needed to travel for business for three months at a time, and therefore could only spend one day in the beit midrash, the house of study. Because of this, the rabbis would mock him, saying that he was not a serious student of Torah. This made Rav Idi very upset. His teacher, Rabbi Yohanan, felt that he couldn’t stand by and watch this happen. So he stood before his students and taught that “anyone who occupies himself with Torah study even one day of the year, is considered as if he had occupied himself with Torah study the entire year!”

How could this be? Does this justify the High Holiday Jew? I don’t think so. Though Rav Idi was not a frequent visitor to the beit midrash, Rabbi Yohanan and the rest of the students certainly were. Also, it seems that Rav Idi did desire to be in the beit midrash more often, as seen in his response to the rabbis’ criticism. Unfortunately, his business greatly limited the amount of time he could spend studying Torah.

But it is Rav Idi’s desire to study, and maybe even his intensity when he was in the beit midrash, that motivated Rabbi Yohanan’s pronouncement. Though he was not able to come that often, he yearned to be there. Perhaps the same could not be said about the other students, who showed up every day but did not approach their study with the same desire and intensity. Rabbi Yohanan reminds us that it’s not just quantity of our practice that counts, but the quality as well.

I am sorry to say that I’m not confident that all of today’s High Holiday Jews have the same excuse as Rav Idi. However, his example reminds us synagogue regulars not to be satisfied with simply checking a mitzvah off of a list, but rather we must also find meaning in our practice. It also teaches us to not to disparage our brothers and sisters who only come once a year. On the High Holy Days, we all resolve to be better Jews in the year ahead – spiritually, religiously, ethically and morally. May that High Holy Day resolution continue to resonate for all of us in the year ahead.

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.