Designing for Social: High Holidays Challenge

Jul 24, 2014 by

When congregations prioritize building relationships and developing a deep and nuanced sense of community, the criteria around which we design our programs and events shift.  No longer are we measuring our success by the number of tushes in seats, but rather the depth of connection and meaning we can facilitate for those involved.

The high holidays are a valuable opportunity for every congregation.  First, it is one of the few times per year (maybe the only time for many congregations) where essentially the entire community is together.  Second, it is a unique opportunity to speak to and connect with those who only ‘walk through the doors’ a few times a year – whether they are current or prospective members.  Clergy, staff and leadership put tremendous time and energy into planning and coordinating the services and events around the holidays.  This year, we encourage you to think not only about how to create a moving experience for each individual, and to connect them to the synagogue, but how to create connection between and among individuals to spark or deepen relationships, and develop a deeper feeling of community.   This could be something very small, or quite significant. Here are a few ideas to play with:

  1. Do a Social Sermon.  Social sermons invite input and discussion from the community in advance of the sermon, and represent the ideas of the community (not just the rabbi) in the sermon itself.  Rabbi David Levy asked questions in advance on Facebook, and used adult education classes in advance of his social sermon to collect commentary from congregants that he wove into a sermon.  Rabbi Paul Kipnes took the concept a step further and turned over his sermon to congregants, working with them in advance to connect their personal life experiences to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, the opening lines of which read, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed… Who shall live and who shall die.” Read more about his incredible experience here.
  2. A personal and active Al Chet.  The liturgy offers many sins for which we ask forgiveness, but our tradition also demands that we ask for forgiveness personally, and we forgive those who ask for our pardon.  How can we use these themes to enrich our community? Rabbi Amy Morrison asked her congregation to pull out their phones and text their personal messages (anonymously) to a screen in the front of the room. “Take those phones out,” she encouraged them. What do you need to let go of in order to be “fully present?  Others might consider inviting congregants to submit their al chet contributions in advance (avoids use of technology on the holiday), or putting them in a box at Rosh Hashanah and having them compiled by Yom Kippur. While this anonymous approach doesn’t connect individuals to one another, it can create a sense of intimacy and relevance within the community, and might inspire deeper conversation within the community.
  3. Ask a Connection Question. Perhaps most simple of all is having congregants turn to one another not only to introduce themselves, but to share someone personal that may create a longer term connection.  These questions should be meaningful enough to provoke an animated conversation that will be memorable for both parties, and accessible enough to make sharing with a stranger comfortable.  Sometimes asking about earliest memories gives permission for transparency and depth, without being too close to home, such as “what’s your earliest memory of asking for forgiveness?”  You might also consider questions that reinforce the interconnection of our community, such as “who is someone in our congregation you’ve really connected with this year, and why?”  This kind of social question helps uncover potential shared connections and areas of interest.

What have you done in the past to help people connect with one another or feel part of a larger community?  What will you try this year?  Share with us in the comments.

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