Once again, they are upon us: the High Holidays. For some, the holidays are a time to reconnect with family and friends they haven't seen in a year. Others look on this as a time of spiritual renewal. And most -- whether they like it or not -- spend a significant part of the holidays in synagogue.
These days, many congregations cater services to the individual, from special children's services to services for singles. Whether the point of the service is to make them more comprehensible for a certain age grou, or to provide a warm environment of peers, finding the right service can make all the difference.
For the Kids
At Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, Rabbi Heidi Cohen leads youth services for grades four to six, an age group that has been "forced into services that didn't speak to them." Since 1998, when Rabbi Cohen joined Temple Beth Sholom as assistant rabbi, the youngsters have used a service obtained from a congregation in Boston to have a "separate and much more meaningful experience," she said. They even touch the Torah while they read the letters and hold the ornaments in a "hand-on experience that's not just done up there," Cohen said, referring to the bimah.
"In the main congregation service the liturgy is not on their level, nor should we expect it to be," Cohen said. "The youth service includes discussions that relate the prayers, blessings and holidays to the kids' lives."
For instance, after the "Yotzer Or," the prayer on creation, the students talk about the blessings in their lives. They also discuss such topics as what it means to atone. After the service the youngsters sit in groups for lunch and relate timely topics to the Torah. Last year, the subject was how Sept. 11 affected people's lives. Now it may be the healing process and what has changed in a year, Cohen said.
"The youth services are my highlight of the High Holidays, when I'm surrounded by kids and we're able to pray together in a meaningful way," Cohen said.
For the Teens
Rabbi Michael Churgel leads separate services for teenagers at Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo, where he serves as assistant rabbi. The 13- to 17-year-olds actually develop their own "teen-friendly" service, according to Youth Director Vicki Cabot. Using the Reform prayerbook, Gates of Repentance, for the High Holidays as a basic structure, the teens develop or incorporate poetry, readings and liturgy set to contemporary music.
Conducted during the same timeframe as adult services, Temple Beth El's teen service is run by the congregation's youth group and attended by 150 to 200 teenagers. The 16-member youth group board decides on the contents of the service and gets volunteers to read the parts. After the service, which lasts up to two hours, there is text study related to timely topics.
"Last year's topic was 9/11, and this year's is Israel," Cabot said. "The group incorporates materials as it sees fit. The teens have more control of this than people do of the adult service, so they feel that it's theirs."
Some adults feel left out of services, too, especially when they are single, and everyone else seems to be part of a family. For that reason the Jewish Community Center (JCC) "wanted to open its doors and make sure that everybody had a place to go," said Debbie Lux, coordinator of the JCC's High Holiday services. "The JCC is one of the first agencies people call when they are new in town and don't know many people," she adds.
Held at the JCC for the past five years, the services attract about 400 singles of all ages. Barry Cohen, who has been affiliated with JCC Singles for many years, officiates at the services, while Eve Michaels provides the music. Leaders are recognized on the bimah, and babysitting is available. In addition, there are many opportunities to socialize -- an Oneg after the Rosh Hashana service, a Tashlich service at the beach and a break-the-fast at a local deli.
Not surprisingly, people meet at services all the time, Lux said. One of the leaders recognized last year met his wife-to-be at the JCC High Holiday services, and a couple that met there two years ago will "tie the knot" in January.
"People come to reconnect with Judaism, to feel like part of an extended family when they don't have real family in the area and to network with other singles," Lux said.