The New Reality

This post originally appeared in The Shofar newsletter of
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, October 2015

What are the most important Jewish holidays? As usual, it depends who you ask.

Most American Jews would respond, “Hanukkah and Passover,” and they are certainly the most-observed Jewish holidays by American Jews by a wide margin: over 70 percent report that they attend a seder or light at least some Hanukkah candles, while less than a quarter attend synagogue services even once a month. Historically, however, the most significant and strict Jewish observances were the High Holidays, particularly Yom Kippur, and Shabbat. Even though synagogue attendance continues to be highest during the High Holidays, more and more Jews don’t even show up for that–a higher percentage report they fast on Yom Kippur than attend services! And many fewer attend even those services than celebrate Hanukkah or Passover.

Why is it that Hanukkah and Passover are so important today?

  • They are celebrated with family, so there are emotional ties.
  • They happen in the home, so no expensive institutional membership or tickets are required
  • They are organized around special foods and readily understood symbols
  • They are episodic (unlike Shabbat, which occurs every week), so one can observe them without disrupting one’s everyday life.
  • They are reinforced by the surrounding society, occurring during Christmas and Easter seasons. This works for both interfaith/intercultural families and for general Jewish participation in American culture.

Of course, Jews living in Eastern Europe in prior generations were also surrounded by Christmas and Easter, but since they did not care what their neighbors thought and generally strove to resist acculturation, Hanukkah remained a minor holiday.

The key point for us to consider is that connections to Jewish institutions are far less common than connections to being Jewish outside of the synagogue. In the 1960s, more than 60 percent of American Jews were synagogue members; and in some suburban communities, much higher than that. Today, closer to one third are synagogue members, though a higher proportion become temporary members through their children’s educational process.

This change does NOT mean that synagogues are done for or have outlived their usefulness, but it DOES mean that we can no longer assume that people will be joining somewhere, and that our job is simply to convince them to join us. Rather, we must realize that we have to give them compelling reasons to join anything, since, if their Jewishness is based on Hanukkah and Passover, they feel little need to.

We who have found the benefits of a warm, welcoming and supportive community – inspiration, fellowship, learning, connections to our roots and to each other – have to reach people where they are, in the new reality of Jewish life. The many possible Jewish futures may be very different from the Jewish present, but they all start here and now.

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