New heights for High Holidays

Rabbi uses Lutheran hall to offer services to unaffiliated Jews

September 24, 2014|By Jonathan Pitts | The Baltimore Sun

Like many rabbis, David Greenspoon spends a lot of time performing services away from houses of worship – officiating weddings, presiding over bar and bat mitzvahs, visiting the sick.

And he recently started noticing something odd: More and more people in these settings were telling him they belonged to no congregation at all.

"If I ever joined a synagogue, it would have to have this, that, or the other," he said they'd confide.

Greenspoon had run into a notable trend. Among the non-Orthodox, a solid majority of American Jews are unaffiliated with a synagogue today — an impediment for those who, like many, at least want to attend services during the High Holy Days, 10 days of sacred importance that begin Wednesday evening.

That's why Greenspoon will offer something rare in the area: a Rosh Hashanah erev, or eve, service on neutral ground aimed at unaffiliated Jews.

For the second straight year, Greenspoon will lead the service in, of all places, the fellowship hall of a Lutheran church.

"The idea is that our church does not belong to us; it belongs to God," said the Rev. Timothy Feaser, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Reisterstown, where Greenspoon will officiate Wednesday night and at four more services between now and Yom Kippur, which begins on the evening of Oct. 3. "The question is, is sharing the facility pleasing to God? We're convinced that it is."

Rosh Hashanah — Hebrew for "head of the year" — is the Jewish New Year, a two-day holiday Jews believe coincides with the creation of the world.

The holiday, which starts at sunset, begins on various dates in early fall but always 163 days after the first day of Passover.

It signals the onset of the new year on the Jewish lunar calendar — the year 5775 this time around.

It also inaugurates the High Holy Days (also called the High Holidays), a period in which Jews are to face and repent for any wrongs they might have committed, determine how to improve, and prepare for the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, when God is said to decide whether their atonement is enough to grant them life for another year.

Services on both days are longer than ordinary Sabbath services, and Rosh Hashanah's feature not just the prayers and Torah readings associated with the period but also the symbolic blowing of a ram's horn (shofar) and the ritual of tashlikh, in which sins are "cast" into open water such as rivers or lakes.

Although millions of Jews across the nation will attend services during the "Days of Awe," recent research has shown that U.S. Jews have drifted from the idea that religious observance is the heart of Jewish identity.

In a recent survey on American Jewish life, the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project found that 15 percent of the nation's roughly 6 million Jews see religion as the core of their Jewishness.

Nineteen percent consider following Jewish law essential, only a fourth of Jews attend a formal service at least once a month, and 41 percent of Jews were certain they believed in God.

A similar survey done locally, the Baltimore Jewish Community Study of 2010, found that 80 percent of the area's non-Orthodox Jews consider Jewish organizations "remote" or "not relevant."

Forty-three percent of non-Orthodox Jews over 35 saw being part of a religious community as "very important," and 14 percent between the ages of 18 and 34 held that view.

The survey, commissioned by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, found that about 93,400 Jews live in Greater Baltimore, nearly 74,000 of them non-Orthodox.

"Take Baltimore's Orthodox population out of the equation" — at 21 percent, it's substantially larger than that of most similar cities — "and the figures are even more skewed," Greenspoon said.

The figures track with other religious trends in the U.S., where 71 percent of mainline Protestants, America's largest Christian group, said they were certain God exists but only 26 percent attend church weekly — and 53 percent do monthly — according to the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey of 2007.

Holy as they are, the coming days can have the unintended effect of exacerbating the feelings of alienation among unaffiliated Jews, said Greenspoon, 51, onetime spiritual leader of Adat Chaim, a Conservative congregation that serves Reisterstown and Carroll County.

At many synagogues, ticket packages for the High Holy Days can run well into the hundreds of dollars. Many who do attend hope to take part in the service — reading Torah or a blessing, sounding the shofar, opening the ark that holds the Torah scrolls — only to find those honors reserved for donors or regular attendees. And there's competition for the best seats, which are assigned.

Depending on the denomination, some synagogues also bar women from taking part, and many make fundraising requests that, while Jews consider the causes worthy, can undermine the personal character of worship.

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