Typically, I go to synagogue three times a year: Rosh Hashanah morning, Kol Nidre evening, and Yom Kippur morning. Maybe, if there’s a family bar or bat mitzvah, or God forbid, a funeral, there will be a fourth time.
But, most years, it’s those three times — and only those three times.
And I cherish those services. They are special, they are holy, they are an irreplaceable part of my autumn. My family has belonged to the same synagogue my entire life, and although there was a renovation about a decade ago, each year feels comfortingly familiar. We park at the town’s middle school and take a school bus to the synagogue, where I avoid making eye contact with boys I kissed in high school. We try to arrive just early enough that we get the “good seats” (blue, cushioned) but not too close where we can’t escape for a bathroom break or two.
On Kol Nidre, my dad and I typically go just the two of us. Last year, we sat in the back row of the sanctuary and I felt fearful the whole time. Having spent the past Jewish year covering the horrors in Pittsburgh, Poway, and beyond, I remember thinking to myself, if someone came in with a gun, we would be the first to die.
No one should ever think that. But, as they say, this is America.
And because this is America, and our inept leadership has failed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, here we are yet again at the High Holidays with something new to be fearful about. With the limit on indoor gatherings still in place, this year, there will be no going to synagogue on the High Holidays for me and so many others.
I know the loss of synagogue is something other Jews have felt for many months, missing Shabbats and bat mitzvahs and the ability to mourn. I know all our normalcy has been upended and cherished rituals have been postponed or altogether suspended. And I know I’m lucky to be healthy, lucky that my family is healthy, and lucky that we can be together at all, with so many other families separated by distance and other obstacles.
But I’m slowly starting to realize just how strange it will be to have an autumn come and go without going to services.
I am, as some would say, a “High Holidays Jew,” AKA a Jewish person who really only is involved in Jewish communal life during the High Holy Days — the period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. This is, intentionally, how my parents chose to raise my siblings and me. I have never really sought out Shabbat services, except one lonely semester I spent studying abroad in London when I researched synagogues and accidentally attended a British Jewish kid’s bar mitzvah on a rainy Shabbat morning.
Sitting through services just doesn’t do it for me — except during the High Holidays.
Along with being a High Holiday Jew, I’m also a “professional Jew,” someone whose job means I’m constantly reflecting on their own Jewish identity by writing for the very site you’re reading (hello!). My Jewishness exists outside of synagogue. My Jewishness exists in the jokes I make with my friends, the foods I love (and argue about), in the values my family raised me with. My Jewishness is inseparable from my identity as a woman in this world, and being Jewish — consciously or not — shapes everything I do. I don’t think the more traditional and religious aspects of Judaism will ever be a big part of my life, yet I know I will still go to High Holiday services for as long as I can. My year would feel incomplete without them.
In some corners of the Jewish world, “High Holiday Jews” are viewed with disdain — we’re seen as Jews who aren’t committed to our Judaism, who don’t care about the present state of Jewish life beyond those few days every fall. That, to me, couldn’t be further from the truth. As I said, even when I’m not going to synagogue, Judaism is always an essential part of who I am and how I navigate the world. And going to synagogue three times a year, and those three times being in the same 10-day period, just makes sense to me. I love hearing the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, listening to the cantor sing Avinu Malkeinu, feeling the collectiveness of the congregation as we say the Viddui. I crave the annual sanctity of these prayers — and I would never miss them for the world.
I often think back on my freshman year of college, when Yom Kippur fell during freshman orientation. In one session on choosing classes, the professor asked my orientation group if anyone observed Yom Kippur. I raised my hand, alongside one other boy. We made awkward eye contact as the professor told us freshman course selection period was during Yom Kippur, and if that would be an issue, we had to speak to him afterwards. Neither of us were religious enough that we wouldn’t be able to access a computer, and the morning services (held in a chapel, weirdly) didn’t conflict with the entirety of course selection, so we both nodded and promptly buried that incident into our memories. Three years later, I started dating that boy, and eight years later, we still laugh at how weird it was for that professor, however well-meaning he was, to call out Jewish students like he did. But there was no doubt for me when I raised my hand: I had been going to Yom Kippur services for my entire life, why would I stop then?
But this year, I have to stop, and I am sadder than I thought I would be. Yes, my synagogue plans to conduct services online, and I am sure my family will tune in, but I know it won’t feel the same. I will miss the way attending synagogue on the High Holidays feels like the start to my autumn. I will miss getting dressed up and feeling like there was something just a little bit special about this time of year. I will even miss the long-standing tradition of dodging eye contact with former crushes.
But I will know that going to synagogue on the High Holidays has never been my only form of Jewish practice, and it has never been what makes me a Jew. Hopefully by next year, I’ll be back on that school bus headed to services with my family. In the meantime, I’ll go on living my Jewish life in exactly the way that makes sense to me.
Header image design by Grace Yagel.