Filling the pews – Part 3: The Jewish holiday experience

By Brandon HENSLEY

As another year of Hanukkah ends and the nation turns its eyes toward Christmas, a question must be asked: Do Jewish people feel like little kids on the block during the holiday season?

Ask Temple Sinai of Glendale Rabbi Richard Schechter, and he’ll say he loves this time of year.

“Personally, I find it enriching,” he said. “To me, there’s a spirit in the air that’s palpable.”

So, during this time of year, when Jews spend eight days commemorating the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees in their victory over the Syrians, is it really a big deal to play second fiddle in this country to Christmas?

Rabbi Richard Flom of the Burbank Temple of Emanu El calls Hanukkah a fun holiday, but not the most important.

“Hanukkah’s really a minor holiday in the great scheme of things,” Flom said. “It’s a religious ritual observance but it’s not one with a real great depth of, say, Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur which are really major holidays with a lot of spiritual reflection going on.”

Flom said its proximity to Christmas is what makes it more well known.

“If Hanukkah were in August, it wouldn’t be any big deal,” he said.

What is a big deal is the continuing drop in numbers for people attending all kinds of religious services throughout the year.

“It’s nationwide and actually it’s worldwide,” Flom said. “Part of the modern age is that people are less religious. They don’t find religion meets their needs in the way that it might have 30 or 40 or 50 years ago.

“There is a certain amount of secularization that happens, too. You can look at what’s happened to Christmas for example. It’s much more of a commercial thing than a religious thing for a lot of people.”

Both Schechter and Flom said when there are so many other things that interest younger people, it can be hard to consistently go to service.

“In this economy, people need to rightly so focus on the essentials,” Schechter said. “People are concerned about their job security, they’re concerned about their mortgage, their bills and raising their children … there’s a sense of insecurity that definitely has an impact on their relationship to communal life and religious life.”

And maybe it’s also about maturity.

“Singles and married couples are less likely to join a synagogue until they have children that are old enough to attend a religious school,” Flom said. “Then they’ll be members and send their kids to a religious school and then there’s a certain amount of drop-out rate after the bar or bat mitzvah.”

And what about those kids getting ready for their bar and bat mitzvahs? Flom said synagogues have sparse attendance with children only until they are about a year away from their coronation.

“We teach them and make sure that they’re aware of all the different observances and how to do it and what it’s all about and how to make it more interesting and meaningful for themselves, and that’s really our function as a synagogue and a school,” Flom said.

The attention spans of some might have something to do with the problem. Flom said there are limits to making services more fun. Emanu El’s Sabbath morning services tend to be over two hours, and in Hebrew. Reformed synagogues, like Schechter’s, can be spoken partly in English, and that means more accessibility.

Schechter said though at least half of a service is done in Hebrew.

In any language, it’s easy to understand the trend toward pushing religion out of the door.

“In Israel Hanukkah is a symbol of strength and sovereignty and standing up for one’s national life and self-governance,” said Schechter.

The test now is to for people to find that strength all year long, not just during the holidays.