The High Holy Days aren't just for Jews anymore

Posted: Friday, October 06, 2000

NEW YORK (AP) -- After years of high church, Andrea King wanted to try something different: the High Holidays.

As an Episcopalian married to a Jew, she had twirled her share of dreidels on Hanukkah. But she had never been to the synagogue on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur.

''You say you are Jewish, how come you never go to services?'' King asked her husband.

So he took her to the synagogue on the Day of Atonement, when Jews fast and seek forgiveness for sins.

King listened to the solemn music as she walked into the synagogue and watched women and men pound their chests as they recounted their crimes of faithlessness, robbery, blasphemy and more.

''It was like a state funeral,'' she remembers. ''I thought, 'Wow, this is depressing.'''

She knew that the congregants were atoning for their sins. Episcopalians did that.

What was missing, she says, was a priest pronouncing: All is forgiven.

That was more than 20 years ago when few synagogues welcomed non-Jews, let alone taught them about the meaning of the holy days and what to expect in the services.

Now King is part of a growing outreach movement in the more liberal branches of Judaism to talk to non-Jewish spouses about how they can participate.

''The message synagogues need to put out is that we want the whole family,'' says King, who now heads the outreach program at Beth Shir Sholom synagogue in Santa Monica, Calif., and is raising her son Jewish.

That message has taken on added urgency as surveys reveal an intermarriage rate of more than 50 percent and climbing.

Orthodox communities say that the Torah forbids intermarriage, and they do not allow non-Jewish family members to participate in rituals. Children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers are not considered Jewish unless they undergo an Orthodox conversion.

Conservative congregations also require conversion in such cases. Preventing intermarriage and encouraging conversion of non-Jewish spouses are primary goals. Still, more of those congregations are allowing non-Jewish parents to play a limited role in the synagogue in the hope that they will raise their children as Jews.

In 1994, the Reform movement parted company when it announced that the it would consider children of Jewish mothers or Jewish fathers fully Jewish if they are raised as Jews. And they welcome a good deal of participation by non-Jewish partners without pressuring them to convert.

Today synagogues throughout the country sponsor workshops for intermarried couples with titles like ''Help! I married a Jew, Now What do I do?''

At Reform Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Calif., where about half the congregation is intermarried, even non-Jewish grandparents and non-Jewish survivors of Jewish spouses attend services.

''The challenge is: How we maintain our sense of being Jewish and welcome people who are resident aliens?'' says Rabbi George Gittleman.

The synagogue holds classes on the High Holy Days for Jewish and non-Jewish members that emphasize universal themes, such as the need for forgiveness.

Rosh Hashana, they learn, is a celebration of life that begins with the blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn, God's summons to Jews to take stock of their actions.

The Days of Awe culminate in Yom Kippur, when Jews fast, confess wrongdoing communally and plead for divine forgiveness.

On Yom Kippur, Gittleman will speak about what it means to love, a theme he says is brought home by his diverse congregation. ''We have to think more concretely about how to love someone who is different but in your midst,'' he says.

Temple Israel in Tulsa puts out a handbook explaining the Holy Days, and Rabbi Charles Sherman believes that non-Jews can benefit from the annual spiritual inventory.

While he'd like to see non-Jewish spouses convert to Judaism, the synagogue's welcome is ''not a hook,'' he says. ''We're saying: ''We'll help you if you need help, and we're very happy to have you.''

At The Tree of Life Synagogue in Morgantown, W. Va., where about 40 percent of the congregation isn't Jewish, Rabbi Bonnie Leavy never says ''We Jews'' in a sermon.

''We consider our non-Jewish members to be a vital, supportive part of the community,'' she says. ''They help the kids in Hebrew school, write plays for the holidays. And many don't plan to become Jewish.''

A convert from Catholicism, Leavy understands how tough it is for non-Jews to comprehend the High Holy Days. In Christianity, she says, Jesus intercedes for them. In Judaism, she says, ''we have a direct connection to God.''

Back in Santa Monica, two decades after King's first Yom Kippur experience, she and her rabbi conduct pre-holiday classes in the synagogue. She has come to feel accepted as a full member of the community and looks forward to the High Holy Days.

''It's a forced opportunity to say: Where am I? Where do I want to be?'' she says.

King had initially learned about Judaism so she could participate in her Jewish son's religious education. In time she came to feel more at home in a synagogue than a church. And she recently converted.

''It came to the point where I'm Jewish on the inside, I might as well be Jewish on the outside,'' she says.

This year she looks forward to her first Yom Kippur as a Jew. There won't be a priest pronouncing absolution. But as Rabbi Sherman tells his congregants, at the end of Yom Kippur the shofar will sound a note of triumph.

''If we do what we're supposed to do, we have faith that God will do what God is supposed to: forgive,'' he says.

King hopes to be among the forgiven.

''I'm expecting to feel more connected through time and space with everybody else who is Jewish,'' she says. ''I'm expecting to hear the shofar with different ears.''

End Adv for Friday, Oct. 6

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