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October 2, 2016 7:13 am

How to Make Rosh Hashanah Truly Meaningful for Non-Religious Jews

avatar by Moshe Pitchon

The pomegranate is one symbol of the Jewish New Year. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The pomegranate is one symbol of Rosh Hashanah. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Most people think of Rosh Hashanah as “the Jewish Near Year.” But this phrase is meaningless, which might help explain why 65% of Jews don’t even go to synagogue on the holiday.

In truth, Rosh Hashanah is not about the movement of the sun and the changing of the seasons; it is about our potential to transform our lives anew.

The Hebrew word shanah is often interpreted as “year,” which explains why the greeting Shanah Tovah is mistakenly interpreted to mean “Happy New Year.” Shanah, in fact, derives from a Hebrew root that means both “change” and “repetition.” Shanah Tovah is thus an expression that challenges us to make personal changes for the better.

Rosh Hashanah asks us to explore what can be born anew — what physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual barriers need to be broken down, and what needs to be remembered, so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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This is something that cannot happen if we’re anesthetized with alcohol, loud music or other uncontrolled behavior.

And it cannot be celebrated with prayers that don’t connect with people.

Young Jews understands this. That’s why recent studies tell us that young Jewish adults often identify strongly as Jews, but have little interest or see little value in institutional or communal Judaism. Confronted with institutions that only care about their own preservation, the vast majority of Jews have been turning elsewhere, or simply nowhere.

In the past, Judaism survived by adapting to changing circumstances. Long prayers full of highly charged medieval theological poetry are not the way to reach Jews today. Nor do they offer guidance on how to live 21st century lives to their full potential.

The vacuum that institutions lacking vision have created today has not only emptied the pews, but has led our young people astray.

The original name of Rosh Hashanah, as found in the Hebrew Scriptures, is Yom Hazikaron —  “Remembrance Day.” Synagogues should not be sources of distraction, but batei knesset — “houses of reunion” — where Jews should gather during this Remembrance Day to talk, to exchange notes, to be provoked by the accumulated wisdom of the generations and to look for lives worth living.

Rosh Hashanah should make us ask who we really are and why we exist. Those are the real questions these holidays are intended to awaken in us.

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