That sentence strikes fear in to the heart of many pulpit rabbis. There is so much preparation that goes in to creating a Rosh Hashannah service. The pressure on the clergy is immense. Thousands of Jews come to synagogue on the High Holidays who only show up that one time a year. The rabbi must lead a meaningful, interesting, and moving service while at the same time inspiring each person in the congregation with his or her sermon. The bar is set very high.
I sit in a very interesting space for the High Holidays. I am a rabbi who does not lead services. I sit in the pews with other congregants, and this gives me a unique perspective. I experience both the tension of my fellow clergy in preparing for the services and the expectations of my fellow congregants when I come to synagogue. I listen intently to both what the rabbi has to say from the pulpit and what the Jews in the pews say in response.
One thing has become abundantly clear to me. The rabbi and other service leaders do have an impact on a congregant’s prayer experience. They set a tone and space for spiritual contemplation. However the people who have the most meaningful experiences at services do so because they take responsibility for their own experience.
What does this mean? It means that they take time BEFORE service to think about what they want to do DURING the service. This plays out differently for different people. Some people spend time before Rosh Hashannah reflecting on the year that is ending, and come to services ready to dedicate themselves to new goals. They then use the time during the service to clarify their goals for the year to come. Others decide to spend the service time itself reflecting on the year that has past. Others bring reading material with them to the service, not just to keep them from getting bored, but to help them move down whatever path they are traveling. I have seen people read Jewish texts, spiritual guidebooks, and self help books. Some people use the familiar melodies and prayers to contemplate God, and pray. And some people use the service time to catch up with old friends since this is one of the few times of year they see each other.