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Those "Twice a Year" Jews

In the space between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are inundated with messages about self-reflection, our responsibilities as Jews in the world, and our level of involvement with Jewish life. In many of these messages, and in the general discussion within the Jewish community, a common phrase stands out to me: "the Jews that only come to shul twice a year"; "those Jews who only come to shul twice a year"; "the kind of Jew who only comes to shul twice a year." Apparently Jews who come to shul only twice a year are a categorical "type" of Jew -- a specific demographic that many Jewish communal organizations are just dying to engage. 

With the identification of "Jews who go to shul twice a year" as a designated group (often a "target" group) comes a pretty heavy value judgment; the implication that you only come twice a year suggests that you should be coming more often, or even that your committment to and engagement with Judaism is minimal or superficial. 

Ray Frank, the first woman to deliver a sermon from a synagogue pulpit in 1890, certainly had strong feelings about "those" Jews. The following is an excerpt from her Yom Kippur sermon, which I discuss further here.

Do not persuade yourself that coming to shule once or twice a year, or fasting for twenty-four hours, will make you a good Jew. Do not comfort yourself with the belief that God will, at the eleventh hour, accept your tithe, which you pay because you must. For three hundred and sixty-three days you are content to go your way, doing as you please, piling up the coin of the United States, and congratulating yourself that your credit is good. You never give a thought to the One from whom all blessings come until reminded that Rosh Hashanah is here and Yom Kippur will follow.

I find the assumptions Ray Frank and others make about Jews who only attend services on the High Holy Days to be inaccurate and unfair. I think that non-religious Jews, especially, understand and believe that it is our actions and good works on the other 362 days of the year that determine our status as "good Jews," not the time spent under the synagogue roof on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I also take issue with the notion that the only way to engage with Judaism and the larger Jewish community is through a synagogue. I work for a Jewish organization, I read Jewish (online) publications, and I have a network of Jewish friends and colleagues. Perhaps these options to engage were not available in 1890, but it is hard to ignore the variety of access to Judaism in our modern, networked world.

But more importantly, I think that Jewish engagement is a choice not an obligation. And as such, each individual is allowed to determine the level of engagement that is most meaningful to her/him. As we think about what it means to embrace a "progressive Judaism," we often think about issues of inclusivity, particularly whom we include and consider to be Jewish. We must also consider how people choose to be Jewish, and respect the choice to be less engaged as a valid one. For me, going to shul twice a year on the High Holy Days is exactly what I want, and need, from the spiritual and religious tradition of Judaism. 

This year, for the first time, I attended a secular Rosh Hashanah service and to my surprise, I actually found that I missed the more religious aspects of the conservative shul I grew up in. This is not to say that I didn't love the secular service; in fact, I did. I felt very comfortable in that setting and appreciated the readings and the tone of the service, as well as the emphasis on things that matter in my day-to-day life, like social justice and progressive politics. I definitely see how secular services are the perfect fit for many Jews. They would have been a perfect fit for me too if it were any day other than Rosh Hashanah, one of the two days a year I choose to have a religious experience, or the closest thing to a religious experience a non-religious person can have.

I love Hebrew prayers, which to this day I can recite from memory even though I have no idea what they mean. The fact that I only sing them twice a year and yet still remember them line by line feels special, like when you see an old friend after a long separation and it feels as though no time has passed at all. When I sing them, I feel connected to a tradition that is older than myself or anything else I know, and I remember the year I lived abroad and found comfort in singing the familiar prayers in an unfamiliar place. I relish the time that the long service provides for self-reflection and the mystical and spiritual atmosphere that Hebrew chanting creates in that space.

As a perpetual student, I count years by the academic calendar and I have come to welcome and look forward to each fall and the High Holy Days as a chance to pause, take stock, make amends, set new goals, and start the new year feeling centered and refreshed. 

I don't think the High Holy Days would feel the same if I attended shul on a regular basis. When I had to attend weekly Shabbat services in preparation for my Bat Mitzvah, I resented the obligation. I think I would resent such an obligation today. But I choose to go twice a year on the High Holy Days and as a result the experience is something special and extraordinary -- a true departure from my everyday life. The High Holy Days are when I find meaning in the religious and spiritual traditions of Judaism, and I am not ashamed to be a "twice a year" Jew.

As we continue through this week of reflection, try not to make assumptions about "those Jews," like me, who only show up twice a year. After all, the High Holy Days are about self-reflection. Let's leave the judgments up to God. 

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For me the issue is not just people coming to worship twice a year. I realize that there are lots of ways to express Jewish identity. The difficulty I face, as a Jewish professional in a synagogue, is that it is not that I only see folks for these two times a year for worship but that is the only time I see them in any capacity. We work hard to provide lots of other entry points and expressions of Jewish culture and identity but only see people for two holidays.

In my mind there is a clear distinction between Jewish (the religion) and Jewish (the culture). No earth shaking revelations here.But, it is Jewish (the religion) that most often makes what's unimportant, important and what's important, unimportant.P.S. I heard that God doesn't take attendance.

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Those "Twice a Year" Jews." 15 September 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 22, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/those-twice-a-year-jews>.

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