Long before COVID complicated Jewish observance, there were ominous signs that participation in synagogue life, especially holiday and festival services, was on the decline. Dependent as we Jews are on the Hebrew calendar, rabbis and congregants were at the mercy of the secular Diaspora agenda — so much so that this year we found ourselves trying to shoehorn a first day Rosh Hashanah celebration into Labor Day and a Chanukah festival three days after Thanksgiving.
Over the years Jewish High Holiday observance has been forced to navigate between first-day-of-school events on Rosh Hashanah to national academic placement tests scheduled on Yom Kippur. Often students are reluctant to miss these milestones and parents are not comfortable demanding synagogue attendance when High Holidays conflict with important secular events.
This year’s double whammy began with Rosh Hashanah and continued through Chanukah when a few short days after Thanksgiving it was time to light the chanukiyot. Young families who traveled long distances to Thanksgiving dinner at bubbe’s house often faced school and work responsibilities in the following week and could not remain for Chanukah. The result? For many families the “l’dor v’dor” experience of sharing the Festival of Lights with the generations was lost.
In recent years some synagogues have confronted the problem head on by adding parallel services and celebrations on weekend days so that the majority of congregants could attend. Case in point, earlier this year Purim fell on secular Feb. 25, a Thursday evening. To combat the obvious lack of participation they were certain to face, a number of synagogues offered a Purim observance on Feb. 28, the following Sunday afternoon. From Boston to Atlanta to Shreveport, Louisiana, synagogues sidestepped the Hebrew calendar and opted instead for a calendar date that made Diaspora sense.
In a recent article in the Jewish Journal (Dec. 8, 2021, S.O.S.— Save Our Synagogues) Jonathan Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Beth Jacob Synagogue, writes, “Jewish communities nationwide are facing a watershed moment that may redefine the present and future of Jewish life in America.”
Jewish Journal editor and author David Suissa takes the crisis a step further when he writes in a Nov. 4, 2021 piece, “How Will Synagogues Reinvent Themselves? (Hint: It Won’t Be with Zoom).” Suissa says, “The vast majority of American synagogues are looking at an uncertain future … In short, synagogues will improve their odds of bringing back the crowds if they open up to new ideas and new thinking.”
One idea might be a Diaspora calendar that would create the opportunity for more Jews to participate consistently in synagogue life. That means that for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, Purim, Pesach, Shavuot and Tisha B’Av, congregants would have the option to attend a lay led service on the Hebrew date, or a Diaspora service that would fall on the same day or the same weekend every year.
The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar that allows for our Jewish holidays to fall in the same season each year. That means that Rosh Hashanah can occur any time between Sept. 5 and Oct. 5, which accounts for our annual musings, “The holidays are late (or early) this year.”
But what if the holidays were consistent? What would it mean to Jewish families if they knew that Sept. 17 is always Rosh Hashanah, and Kol Nidre is always Sept. 25 and Yom Kippur is always Sept. 26?
Or what if Erev Rosh Hashanah always fell on the third Friday of September so that the two day New Year observance, as well as Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur, consistently occurred on weekend days?
How was your Chanukah this year? Was the transition from turkey to latkes a smooth one? For many Jewish families this year’s Chanukah was a challenge, not only because it fell so close to Thanksgiving, but because both the first night and the eighth night, when traditional Chanukah celebrations are often held, were also school and work nights. Not to mention that the entire eight day celebration was especially challenging for families that must navigate between Jewish tradition and secular society. But what if Chanukah were consistent as well, occurring at a time when secular society is celebrating a national holiday?
Given that Chanukah can begin as early as late November or as late as early January, securing the holiday at a time consistent with school vacations and reduced work schedules might offer families the opportunity to bring children, parents and grandparents together both at home and in shul.
If Chanukah fell annually Dec. 21-28 there would be time for our families to hear the stories, to kindle the light and to give a beautiful Jewish event the “kavanah,” the attention, that it deserves.
A radical idea? Not really, especially when we consider what some historians believe actually happened during the time of the Maccabees, when Jews rescheduled an important Jewish holiday to a more convenient time.
In 2005 Rabbi Mark Glickman penned an article in the Seattle Times that posed the question, “Why is Hanukkah eight days long?” Rabbi Glickman explains that the answer is found in the observance of another Jewish holiday, the festival of Sukkot. The rabbi writes that “Sukkot is an eight-day celebration that usually occurs in September or October, when Jews were supposed to have made pilgrimages to the Temple to offer sacrifices to God.”
However, because the Temple was under siege, the Jews could not observe Sukkot. Approximately two months later, after the Maccabees were victorious and the Temple was restored, the elders of the community decreed that Sukkot would be celebrated at a different time. The Jews would adjust their festival dates to observe the eight days of Sukkot in December, in the Hebrew month of Kislev. So significant was this change that the holiday that year was known as Sukkot B’kislev, or December Sukkot!
Could it be that the COVID pandemic brought about a crisis in Judaism as monumental as the Temple under siege? David Souissa thinks so. He writes, “When the Second Temple was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago, our religion went through another earthquake … (but) we overcame that destruction by being creative, resourceful and resilient. … We survived by staying connected, to our tradition and to one another.
Our person-to-person connections form the foundation of Jewish life. Our Hebrew calendar, perfect as it is for an entire country, Israel, to adopt and adhere to, is an obstacle in the Diaspora. It is worth considering a Diaspora calendar and, with the Maccabees’ Sukkot B’kislev as our guide, this time of change could be the right time for a Diaspora calendar to revive synagogue life by meeting the unique needs of Diaspora Jews. PJC
Originally from Pittsburgh, Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-Orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B’neio Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots. This piece first appeared on The Times of Israel.