For many decades, Temple B’nai Moshe in La Salle, Illinois has had rabbinic students fly in from Cincinnati in order to intern in the congregation. During the two years that I was a student at the Hebrew Union College, I served that small and lively synagogue on a bi-weekly basis. In addition to Shabbat, I was in LaSalle for the High Holy Days. I recall with a smile an experience I had before my first Rosh Hashanah with them.
When I first began my service as their student rabbi, I did not think to ask members about the customs and practices of the congregation. I was a young fellow with my own ideas about how services should go. About a month before Rosh Hashanah, I was at Temple B’nai Moshe. During a meeting of the Worship Committee, I laid out all of my bright ideas about how the services would unfold.
I could see the members of the committee glancing at one another with raised eyebrows. Then the chairperson of the Worship Committee with great benevolence said to me, “Well Avi, if that’s what you want to do, go right ahead. But you might want to know that we already have an order for the High Holy Day services. In fact, we have filled all the volunteer parts for each service; and we have Torah and Haftarah readers as well if you want to make use of them.”
After Seymour’s remarks, I did a very rapid calculation in my head. Should I spend countless hours as a part-time student rabbi completely revamping their High Holy Day services? Or should I rely upon the congregation’s well established customs and practices? It was not a difficult choice to make. In a flash, I informed the members of the Worship Committee that I would be delighted to rely upon their expertise in organizing High Holy Day services. I, in turn, would do my best to infuse the services with spirit and inspiration.
I look back with fondness to my time with members of Temple B’nai Moshe. It was a wonderful learning experience for a rabbi in training. Without a doubt, I learned a great deal of practical rabbinics during my two years of service.
I share this story from the past because I am currently very engaged in the process of planning our High Holy Day services for the coming fall. In a broad sense, there is a constant dynamic embedded in every experience of Jewish worship. On the one hand, it is very important to honor customs and traditions that carry from year to year and help shape the identity of the community. Yet on the other hand, there is a profound need for constant renewal, of awakening ourselves to the vitality of prayer through inspirational readings and moments of innovation.
With the arrival of our new Reform machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, I have the extraordinary and welcomed challenge of reshaping our High Holy Day services. As I slowly and carefully examine its pages, I am mindful of the dynamic between tradition and innovation. What will our High Holy Day services be like in 5776? It is too early to really know. However, I can assure you the following: there will be elements of each High Holiday service that will be well-known; allowing a measure of comfort and familiarity that enhance our communal worship. On the other hand, there will be many components of the service, especially the English readings, which will be new. The ultimate goal is through a thoughtful balance of tradition and change, our High Holy Days service will enable us to attune our souls to the themes of the Yamim Noraim, to embrace the New Year with self-reflection, repentance, and joy.