Unsurprisingly, clergy talk to each other about all sorts of aspect of our shared experience in different locations.  One discussion we  Jewish clergy return to, every year, is our experience of the High Holy Days (and additional Tishrei Holidays).  We talk both about our personal experience of the Days of Awe, and our community experience.  This is actually true for those in pulpit and non-pulpit roles.  For those not leading services or holiday experiences, we still talk about how we personally encountered the season this particular year, and our own interpretation of whatever service we went to–at least based on my own experience of my non-pulpit rabbi years, at the times I didn’t take a High Holy Day Pulpit.  And one of the great gifts of technology, is that we are able to have these conversations despite geography.  Recognizing that all of us, as Jewish professionals (and not just clergy) have a somewhat unique experience of Jewish life, we can connect to each other to share and reflect on the myriad ways that we experience Jewish life from our vantage point.

In one of those conversations this year, a colleague commented that while they felt good about the services and experiences, they didn’t feel personally fulfilled by the holidays themselves.  I snarkily retorted that I didn’t feel any less engaged than I generally did.  I have long felt challenged by the High Holy Days–the liturgy and worship experience in particular.   I even preached on this a few years ago–I know I’m not the only one that finds the High Holy Days to be a sometimes disconnecting experience.  It has taken me a long time to wrestle with that and figure out how to find meaning in the season–and it is not always through the traditional modes. But I have, for the most part, figured out for myself how to find moments of connection, and to find meaning in the season as a whole–to get the enduring understanding through an alternate lesson plan, to wax educational for a moment.

As the conversation with my colleague went on, they reflected that the details of the holiday experience was disconnecting for them, that it kept them from fully experiencing the experience of the services.  I commented that, for me, while there were challenges and bumps in the logistics in my own place (minor ones, but the small glitches that are unavoidable when you’re creating any sort of experience for hundreds of people–the ones the participants rarely notice yet that can become a distraction for those leading), the congregants–the community–felt satisfied and spiritually fulfilled from their experience.

To this, my colleague responded that they knew that while some colleagues felt that even if they didn’t feel spiritually connected to an experience, and have given up trying, they would feel satisfied if at least their community felt good about it.  It wasn’t until a few hours later–long after this conversation ended–that I realized that what they had articulated wasn’t really what I meant.  It was a few hours after that, that I was able to figure out how to articulate my thoughts.  Rather than reenter that discussion, I figured that there were others that might find this interesting, and so I’m posting it here.

It wasn’t so much that I feel successful in spite of my own disconnect, because at least my congregants connected–rather that it is exactly because my community connected, that I was able to find satisfaction.  Yes, I had moments of worship at which I felt the connection and experienced true prayer (I believe this is true for my colleague as well, based on our conversation).  But I am one who draws satisfaction from being able to create satisfaction for others.  This is why I love being an educator–I’m able to facilitate “wow moments,” the instants at which another understands a new idea in a new way.  And that’s where I find the greatest satisfaction.  It’s when I see my community engaged in an experience that I have had a part in creating, that I am able to best feel connection to the Divine, that I find my own satisfaction.

So, yes.  While there were distractions, while there were things I was worried about, while life went on and created new distractions, and while the logistics and details were constantly on my mind…none of that diminished my overall satisfaction.  Because I had my own moments of prayer, here and there.  Because at some point (probably in large part through many summers at camp), I learned to not let the glitches distract me from the experience.  Because I know that the experience–the learning, the worship, the overall gestalt–worked for our community as a whole.  And that’s really the biggest part of it.  Because others got something out of it, their satisfaction satisfies me.

I don’t find the experience satisfying despite my own experience, because others liked it.  I find the experience satisfying BECAUSE my own experience is defined by others like of it.  That is my greatest satisfaction.  Making experiences, creating learning, creating connections–and allowing the experiences of others to inspire my own inspiration and satisfaction.


About rabbiisa

I'm a Reform Rabbi with a passion for education! I'm also a pop culture fan, political junkie, and NY Times crossword puzzle addict. I am INTP, a proud member of Red Sox Nation, and a fan of the Oxford Comma.

2 responses »

  1. As a lay person, I have an annual High Holiday pulpit, which doesn’t give me a lot of relationship building time with the congregation. Each year, as the holidays approach, and I am torn in many different directions, I ask myself why I do this. The cyclical nature of my work that puts the start of a lot of new projects in the fall just exacerbates the distractions.

    Yet each year, Yom Kippur comes, and I feel that same sense of wonder at the connection that is made between the congregation and me. It is a feedback loop, that flows from me to them and back again to me. My experience of the holidays becomes defined by feeling that I have somehow made it possible for them to feel and worship. And therefore, I can, as well.

  2. vdolmstead says:

    It has been ten years since, as a Jew by choice, I stood before the arc just before the start of High Holy Days. I chased Rabbi Grumbacher until I gained the privilege and it was important to me that I got my Hebrew name before holidays. But the experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur validated my persistence and each year that validation is repeated. I confess, I feel a bit of sadness at seeing some of our congregants on those days alone, but I think it’s counterbalanced by the warmth and wonder of the total experience. I am uplifted. I am forgiven and forgiving of others. I’m part of something much bigger than I and I am closer to an Infinite Spirit. I am grateful for all my wonderful clergy does to complete that picture for me.

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