-B. Taanit 30b
Who says that the Days of Awe have to be solemn and somber? These are the days in which we wish each other a sweet new year and in which we rejoice in the purification of forgiveness. It is time to rediscover the joy of this season. Here are six ideas for making High Holy Days services more joyful:
• Begin your services by greeting each other. In most congregations, High Holy Days services are the only time of the year that almost the entire community is present in the synagogue. Even in a small congregation, there are going to be long-time members who have never met or who can't remember each other's names. By beginning the service with greetings and words of welcome, we can become true communities. I ask everyone to stand up, find someone they do not know, and wish each other a "Shanah Tovah!"
• Let children behave like children. There is nothing, in my mind, that kills the experience of being in the synagogue for children more than being told to be quiet. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi tells a great story about a child who is told that the holy ark contains the most wonderful thing in the world—the Torah. The child gets so excited that when the ark is opened during services he yells out, "The Torah! The Torah!" What does he hear in return? "Shhhhhh!" We have no idea how much those shushes hurt a child's Jewish joy. You want to have children in your congregation? You want them to feel welcome and joyful about being there and about being Jewish? Then, please, stop punishing them for acting like children. I begin my services by assuring parents that we consider the cries and laughter of children to be "the most sincere form of prayer." Also, recognize that when children misbehave in the synagogue, it is usually because they are bored. Work on making service more engaging and meaningful for children before assuming that it is their attitude or lax parenting that is the root of the problem.
• Let the congregation participate in the shofar service. For years, I have been asking the members of the congregation to call out the blasts of the shofar: "Tekiah! Shevarim-Teruah! Tekiah!" It really changes the way people feel about the mitzvah of hearing the sound of the shofar. In the congregation I have come to this year, there is another joyful custom. They ask all the children to bring shofarot on Rosh Hashanah and they all sound the blasts for the final shofar call. I can't wait to hear it.
• Wish people a sweet New Year with sweets. My friend and rabbinic school classmate, Rabbi Michael Latz, hands out Tootsie Rolls at Rosh Hashanah services to give some real flavor to the traditional greeting, "Shanah tovah umtukah," "A good and sweet year!" People who love chocolate and other sweets will love Rosh Hashanah even more—and love being Jewish and being in the synagogue—if you celebrate the holiday with their favorite treats.
• An intimate Ne'ilah. Most congregations that open up the moveable walls and expand their sanctuaries for the High Holy Days will find that they can go back to a small sanctuary by the time the final Ne'ilah service comes around. (What a shame for the people who are missing the best part of Yom Kippur!). Take advantage of the shifting numbers by making Ne'ilah a more intimate experience. If your congregation stands throughout Ne'ilah, as the tradition suggests, they don't need to stand at their chairs. Get them up on the bimah and feel themselves to be part of a community as each person struggles to dig deep within him or herself for the final lunge toward t'shuvah by the final shofar blast. It is one of the most powerful moments of the Jewish year. The havdalah that follows is one of the most joyful!
• Break the fast as a community. Congregational break-the-fasts are one of the best opportunities of the year to create a sense of community and togetherness. Think of it: you have just been through the emotional rollercoaster and liturgical marathon of Yom Kippur, and now you've made it through to the end. What are you going to do? Leave the people with whom you've just shared it and eat a bagel at home? Instead, stay in the synagogue and rejoice as a community in the completion of the year's most important religious and social occasion. Begin the new year with the mitzvah of not separating yourself from the community.
What are your favorite parts of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that make the Days of Awe a joyful experience? Share your ideas in the comments.