Jewish Journal


September 7, 2000

Unaffiliated? How to find the right synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur


Hazzan Jeremy Lipton, Rabbi Joel Rembaum, and Rabbi Perry Netter prepare a High Holy Day Torah reading with students from Temple Beth Am's Pressman Academy. Photo by Jules Porter Photographers

Hazzan Jeremy Lipton, Rabbi Joel Rembaum, and Rabbi Perry Netter prepare a High Holy Day Torah reading with students from Temple Beth Am's Pressman Academy. Photo by Jules Porter Photographers

Every fall, hundreds of Jews who don't belong to synagogues fan out across greater Los Angeles for a once-a-year dip into Jewish worship, buying tickets or wangling free seats at services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Some are motivated by parents, others tag along with friends; some have babies or preschoolers and are thinking about where they might want to affiliate when the kids are a little bigger, while others are beginning to feel the first stirrings of a spiritual search.

And every fall, after the holidays, the air is filled with complaints: Too long! Too much Hebrew! Not enough Hebrew! I didn't like the music! I never got to sing! The rabbi wasn't dynamic! It wasn't like what I grew up with! It was just like what I grew up with!

We are blessed here in Los Angeles with a rich and diverse Jewish community that includes worship experiences of every conceivable style and level of religious intensity, yet hundreds of Jews don't know where to find a congenial place to park themselves for the High Holy Days. It's a problem, because the inability to find a satisfying holiday experience is a source of religious alienation for a lot of Jews. So The Journal is tackling it by presenting a sort of field guide, aimed at Jews without a temple affiliation, to what some of our local synagogues and other communal organizations are offering this year.

Getting into the movements

Many Jews take the path of least resistance when it comes to attending services on the holidays, choosing the temple closest to home, perhaps one they pass on the way to work. And they go in cold, not having spent any time at the synagogue previously - sometimes not even realizing how the synagogue is affiliated and how that affiliation shapes the service.

Some Jews who have childhood memories of traditional services, for example, will go to a nearby Reform synagogue and be put off by the amount of English used in the service and the use of instrumental accompaniment, even - horrors! - an organ. Others, who may have grown up with a user-friendly and streamlined Reform service, wander into Conservative synagogues and find themselves sitting through what feels like endless hours of incomprehensible Hebrew chanting.

This is not to say that all liberal services and all traditional services are alike - far from it. Plenty of Reform congregations pray predominantly in Hebrew and are capable of a four-hour Rosh Hashanah morning service (even without a long-winded rabbi), and some Conservative synagogues use both organ and professional choir. But in very broad strokes, there are structural and stylistic differences among the four main Jewish movements that a potential congregant can use as a basis for comparison.

A Reform service is likely to include some prayers read in English rather than Hebrew and probably features little of the sotto voce davening that is done during wide swaths of a traditional service. Instrumental accompaniment - piano, organ, guitar - is commonplace. It's more likely to include contemporary musical settings of liturgy and nonliturgical cantorial or choir pieces used to illustrate themes of the service.

There's no one "Reform" musical style. Some Reform temples stay with the old model of performance-oriented music, in which the cantor and choir do most of the singing, while others are participatory, with the cantor functioning more as a songleader than a soloist. Others take pains to provide a mix of styles.A Reconstructionist service will reflect traditional liturgy while incorporating more contemporary considerations and readings. Music and singing are part of the service, as is a mix of Hebrew and English.AConservative synagogue tends to run a longer service, especially during the day, in part because it includes the musaf (additional) service that Reform excised back in the 19th century. Pretty much all the praying is done in Hebrew, though some congregations provide transliterations of Hebrew into English characters and others use prayerbooks that transliterate most of the congregational prayers.

Singing is much more likely to be unaccompanied in a Conservative synagogue, though the style of music can vary widely. In some shuls, traditional chant by cantor and congregation predominates, punctuated here and there by set pieces. In others, the art of chazzones - florid, virtuoso singing by cantor and choir - is alive and well.

Some unaffiliated Jews use the holidays to sample Orthodox services, possibly drawn by the outreach programs of Chabad and Aish Los Angeles or looking for what they think may be a more "authentic" Judaism than what they've experienced hitherto.

"Orthodox shuls have done a good job of reaching out," said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, director of synagogue services for the Los Angeles office of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, referring to the reputation many Orthodox communities have for creating a warm, inviting atmosphere. "That's one of the mainstays of Orthodoxy today."

The worshiper unaccustomed to an Orthodox service, though, should realize that very long holiday services are the norm, all of the prayer is in Hebrew without transliteration (though some Orthodox institutions have established beginners' services), men and women do not sit together, and the service may be almost entirely chanted. "Cantorial issues are waning in the Orthodox community," Kalinsky said, saying that most Orthodox shuls hire ba'alei tefilah (prayer leaders) rather than cantors.

There are stylistic exceptions, of course. The Chai Center, renowned for its outreach to Jewish singles, conducts its holiday services in English. Congregation B'nai David-Judea, located at ground zero for modern Orthodox Los Angeles near the corner of Pico and Robertson boulevards, includes a good deal of congregational singing, with liturgy set to tunes by Shlomo Carlebach and the folk group D'veykus, and has even made a tape of the songs available to congregants.

Finding your place

So how do you discover a shul that's right for you?

First, have some idea of what you want - which means giving the matter some thought. Alice Greenfield, acting director of the Conservative movement's regional office in Encino, says choosing a synagogue is "part of a personal growth process, a path," and is of a piece with the soul-searching in which Jews are supposed to engage during the month of Elul. "[People] should understand what the month before Rosh Hashanah is all about," Greenfield said. "You have to be in a place where you can dig deep and be ready for prayer."

Decide what kind of music you want to hear, how much singing you want to do, how much Hebrew you're comfortable with. Size does matter; if you don't want to be in a room with more than a hundred people, then you'll want to seek out the tiniest shuls. But keep in mind that a large congregation is more likely to include diverse populations and thus be more conducive to your finding a demographic niche.

Big doesn't have to mean impersonal, either. Elaine Diamond, a congregant at Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park, says the temple's spirit doesn't suffer when it moves into the Century Plaza Hotel for the holidays. "We transform the vast ballroom into a warm, welcoming house of worship, a sacred space filled with beautiful music and heartfelt prayer," Diamond told The Journal. "It is truly a powerful experience to come together as a congregation of nearly 2000 people, to feel the strength of the community, and to be enveloped by so much love and friendship."

Legwork is important, and it should involve actual legs: After you've called a few temples to find out the basic facts of size, demographics, and worship style, go to Friday night or Saturday morning services at a couple of places before the holidays begin.

Talk to people - clergy, officers, the chairperson of the ritual committee, rank-and-file congregants - to get a feel for the community. Every shul claims to be "warm and welcoming," but the proof of the claim lies in how many people wish you Shabbat shalom and, even better, strike up a conversation.

By all means, start in your own neighborhood. "I think it's very hard to create community outside of a geographical area," said Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, pointing out that our history has been one of close-knit communities.But if the local shul doesn't suit you in terms of its worship style or demographics, don't hesitate to go further afield. Unless you're committed to walking to services during the holidays, finding a synagogue community in which you feel at home is much more important than how close to home it is. The extra 20 minutes in the car will be well worth it.

And be ready to compromise; you may not get a feeling of camaraderie and know all the tunes the congregation sings and enjoy sermons from a charismatic rabbi. "The biggest mistake people make [in evaluating a synagogue] is to assume that a part of the synagogue is the whole," Henkin said. "They look at the rabbi or the cantor and ignore the community; they don't try to expose themselves to the overall life of the synagogue."

In short, put the same care into choosing a temple that you would put into choosing a new health club. "We're talking about a spiritual health care program," said Dr. Ron Wolfson, a leader of the Synagogue 2000 project, a think tank for innovation in American synagogues. "It's a very big decision."

Breaking the High Holy Days pattern

So let's say you wind up enjoying the holiday services at the temple you decide on. Here's a radical thought: what about going back for Simchat Torah? And the next Shabbat? And a couple of weeks later? Is this the year you decide being a High Holy Days Jew isn't enough?

The health club metaphor applies here too: expecting spiritual enlightenment by going to services once a year is like expecting an annual visit to the gym to give you washboard abs. "It's fascinating that people still do that," Greenfield said. "People want to connect - something is compelling them to [go to holiday services]. But it's unrealistic to expect that experience to fulfill their spiritual needs for the year."

The Yom Kippur I was 15, the rabbi of our Reform temple held up a can of something called Instant Jewish, a gag gift of the time, and told his congregants that was what they were looking for by coming to services only on the holidays. He ticked off a lot of people that day, though we teenagers, who were spending a lot more time at shul than our parents were, wanted to stand up and cheer.

Instant Jewish may get you through the holidays, but the kind you brew for a while really tastes a lot better, and if you don't like one pot, you can always start fresh with a different blend. We hope the information on these pages, including a comprehensive congregational directory beginning on page 29, gets you started on your quest for a worship experience that isn't too big, isn't too small, isn't too hot, isn't too cold, but is just right - a community you'll want to stay with year-round.

Enjoy the search.

Ellen Jaffe-Gill is a member of Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim and Temple Mishkon Tephilo.

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