Low Davening Fruit

I was just leaving a comment on a new post by David Wilensky. He’s received an advance copy of part of the new Reform machzor – Mishkan T’shuvah – and he’s brainstorming the criteria he’s going to use to evaluate it on his blog. Go check out what he has to say. This prompted me to wonder:

Given that most of the people who go to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are of the “twice-a-year” variety, shouldn’t a machzor be designed with this in mind?

If so, wouldn’t you – as an editor of this machzor – do everything you could to make it accessible and inspiring with the goal of encouraging these twice-a-year Jews to become thrice-a-year or whatever comes after thrice?

Wouldn’t you fill it with meaningful and explanatory commentary and inspiring readings that aren’t clumped together like they’ve been pulled from Bartlett’s Quotations? Wouldn’t you present it in an open and unintimidating way? Wouldn’t you make it beautiful and enjoyable to use?

Have you seen what most machzors look like today? (Hint: most don’t look like that, and those that do are cost-prohibitive).

Congregations work so hard to bring in members, and as any Jewish demographer will tell you, most are struggling right now. So on the very days during the year when the crowd is in the house with books in hand, shouldn’t congregations be equipped to fight the good fight?

If you were in marketing, you would bend over backwards for the opportunity to reach people in the way congregations can at the High Holidays.

Suppose you’re a marketing firm representing some company. Imagine a crowd of people have voluntarily sat down in front of a billboard you created advertising this company, having already purchased whatever it is the company sells. Now imagine that this crowd of people have also told you that they’re only going to sit there for five days, and then they’re leaving and not coming back for a year. To make matters worse, they won’t again be purchasing whatever it is the company sells until then. Sound familiar?

If you were that marketing firm, wouldn’t you do everything you could to entice the people to come back sooner? Wouldn’t you design a billboard that wasn’t just targeted towards the brand-loyal, but also to the fence-sitters and window-shoppers?

If you were that company, wouldn’t you demand that the marketing firm earn its pay by creating such a worthy campaign?

I’m not suggesting that a machzor is just a billboard or a piece of advertising collateral, and I’m not suggesting that a shul is just selling a product or service. There is unique spirituality and holiness among both. But there is also some resonance in these comparisons.

The twice-a-year crowd is often viewed with contempt and relegated to the back of the shul, since most assume that they only come out of a sense of familial obligation or Jewish guilt. Not being of this variety myself, I can’t speak for them, however I would assume that very few feel compelled to return to shul following the High Holidays. Indeed, the proof is in the pews. And to some extent, congregations allow this to be so by focusing their energy and attention instead on the regulars, since those regulars demand the attention.

But the twice-a-year crowd are low hanging fruit! They’re in the house with books in hand!

Most certainly there is a responsibility on the part of congregations to reach out in a welcome manner, create worship services that are engaging and meaningful, and do their job to reach these low hanging fruits daveners.

But in the major Jewish Movements today, most congregations use the standard machzor of that Movement. So isn’t there some responsibility on the Movement’s part, too? Isn’t there a responsibility to create a machzor that does everything that my imaginary marketing firm would do?

I say yes.

So as David evaluates the new draft of Mishkan T’shuvhah, I’m left wondering if it will be a product that is created cognizant and reflective of the majority of people who will be holding it, or if it will be a product that serves instead the vocal minority. I’m not going to judge the book by it’s non-existent cover by making any assumptions at this point. I just hope that Mishkan T’shuvah will be both an inspiring product for the brand-loyal Jews, and also an enticing billboard for the low hanging daveners.

Billboard Judaism: Week 1: A (too brief) Review

I’ve had the kippah on for a week. And in that week, some interesting things have happened. Here are two. More to follow.

– A taxi driver in New York launched into a ten-minute, mostly one-sided conversation with me about how his rabbi wanted him to drive him to tashlich, how he loved old Jewish music, and how he wanted to wear a kippah also because he thought it would make him more moral and a better person, but wasn’t sure how to start. I smiled and told him you can really just start, but that it’s not a magic talisman. Or maybe it is.

– At a pub last night, a burly guy in overalls and a tank-top – clearly drunk – sauntered up to me and yelled above the music “Shana Tovah, eh!” This guy would have terrified me normally. I would have avoided him on the street. But now, I was able to smile and say thanks. He yelled “What are you doing here?” I replied, “It my buddy’s birthday!” His response? “OH! Well tell him yom huledet sameach, eh?” He walked off. A brief interaction, but something that would never have happened if it weren’t for the billboard on my head.

To summarize: Wow.

With the kippah, I have attracted attention. And I like it. I feel a little more communal. A little more a part of a whole. What intrigues me – really what delights me – is that the attention I’ve received comes from people who I wouldn’t otherwise have known were Jewish. We’ve had brief connections, been able to smile in something shared that was previously hidden. I’ll unpack this more next week after Yom Kippur.

In keeping with the theme of yom kippur, I will briefly confess that I’m hesitant when walking around some streets of New York, extremely self-conscious about what friends and others think, curious about what goes through peoples’ minds at work, and worried that I’ll be judged any random group of people – Jews or otherwise – walking around.

I still like it. It keeps me on my toes. Keeps me thinking about what being Jewish should mean on a daily basis. And that’s the whole point, eh?

If it’s your thing, have a meaningful fast. G’mar Chatima Tova.