Monday, September 13, 2010

And what did you do on the second day of Rosh Hashanah?

A recent JTA article raised the question, and responded with anecdotal information about people who do and people who don’t observe two days, regardless of the position of the stream with which they identify. The article discusses why the second day was added, how it has been justified, and how the second day of Rosh Hashanah is different from the Yom Tov Sheni, second holy day, of the three festivals. (For a more sophisticated discussion, see Mah Rabu

I have always observed both days of Rosh Hashanah, largely because I have always observed both days of Rosh Hashanah. During one phase of my early adult life, my “observance” was pretty much limited to not going to work (either day), and then, when I finally joined a congregation, it was a Reform temple, with a one-day observance. The second day felt empty to me, though, and I was able to cadge a ticket to attend the second day at the Conservative synagogue up the street.

When Gates of Repentance was published, it contained two different Rosh Hashanah services, with the suggestion that the second one could be used for variety, or for a shorter service, or for congregations that observed two days – a new idea to me as a Reform concept, but one that alerted me to a trend in some sectors of the movement, to observe the second day. My suggestion that we introduce second day services at my congregation was heard with interest by the associate rabbi, but was set aside after the idea was broached to the senior rabbi. So I continued to go to the Conservative synagogue, and then after a few years, to Beth Emet’s second-day observance.

Flash forward a number of years. At the temple board meeting of my previous congregation immediately after the High Holy Days, the president of the congregation began the proceedings by asking the board for guidance on an issue, after the fact, but as a determinant for next year. The executive director had suggested closing the temple office on the second day, because so many members of the office staff observed both days. The president had agreed, stipulating that this was not to be taken as a precedent for the future.

In the board’s discussion, I commented that the temple served me well 364 days a year, and that I had made arrangements to fill my needs on the 365th, so it was immaterial to me personally whether or not we held second day services. If we do, I said, then it’s a holy day, and obviously the temple office should be closed. If we don’t, though, we’re saying it’s not a holy day, and therefore the office should be open, while allowing those who observe two days to take a personal day. The board agreed with the principle I had articulated, and voted to keep the office open in the future, although eventually, with new clergy, the congregation adopted the second day.

A quickie survey of the second-day scene among Reform congregations in the Chicago area indicates that this year about half the Reform congregations are observing two days. I just heard about one Conservative congregation that rents a high school auditorium to accommodate its first day crowd, while on the second day, it uses the sanctuary, larger than its own, of a hospitable one-day Reform synagogue. (That’s the paradox facing Conservative synagogues, whose members don’t practice what they expect their rabbis to preach. But that’s a subject for another day.)

Here at Beth Emet, the second day services are very different in look and feel from first day – smaller, no choir, a highly participatory Torah discussion instead of a sermon. I enjoy the intimacy, even as I miss the majesty that accrues when a thousand people pray together.

The JTA article I referenced at the outset said that, among congregations of all streams that observe a two-day Rosh Hashanah, the attendance fall-off the second day is 75%. And this year, with the holiday on Thursday and Friday, we went directly into Shabbat Shuvah. Somewhat to my surprise, attendance at both Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat morning services was pretty close to normal Shabbat attendance. Apparently we have a cadre of daveners who don’t “burn out.”

I write this with Yom Kippur looming, and we will again have a crowded expanded sanctuary. The more people, the harder it is to see anybody, much less everybody. So if I didn’t get a chance to extend wishes for a good and sweet year at last weekend’s four day marathon, let me do so now. Gmar chatimah tovah.

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