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How to Make the High Holidays More Engaging for Young Adults

This article was first published in eJewish Philanthropy.

For many, the High Holidays represent a fresh start. With all of our community’s services, celebrations, learning retreats and dinners happening over the next few weeks, this season is an ideal opportunity to involve young adults in meaningful Jewish experiences, and to lay the foundation for their year-round engagement in Jewish life. Here are some tips, ideas, and best practices to deepen young adults’ High Holiday experiences:

High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur: Yusselsplace.com

1. Design your “first impression” You only have one chance to make a first impression on many of the young adults who will be walking into your community for the first time. What are they seeing as they walk in—will they feel welcomed, or like an outsider? Who are they talking to first, and who is directing them? Birthrighters tell us that meeting a “friendly face” when they arrive at an event can make or break the experience. Also make sure to check-in with them after the event; framing the experience can be the difference between discovering meaning and a mere shrug of the shoulders.

2. Create reflective programming The High Holidays present unique opportunities for personal reflection. Following Kol Nidre and leading up to Neilah are intuitive times to engage young adults in small-group reflection, and can add the type of depth that instills this time of year with kavanah (intentionality) and rejuvenation.

3. Create opportunities to study in shul During the holidays, our communities are just as much houses of learning as they are houses of prayer. While meaningfully engaging with prayer is fulfilling, many find other ways to engage with the questions with which we are challenged to think about during the High Holidays. Offer study options like hevruta-style discussion (in pairs) or self-directed learning, and provide text sources that speak to your community’s values and personality.

4. Develop participatory experiences There are many ways to make a High Holiday experience more participatory. Everything is an opportunity, from the prayer leader’s choice in melodies to create an atmosphere or mood, to the way chairs are set up, to one’s placement in the room and/or choice to move around. Introducing activities like a shofar-blowing contest, a cooking lesson, or storytelling can all bring a service to life and add meaning, depth and focus to the prayers themselves.

5. Weigh explanations vs. experience Explaining an event or service’s components throughout and establishing a rhythm is a delicate balancing act. The leader must consider his or her audience’s knowledge base, and one’s own ability to juggle the needs of the collective with the needs of individuals at the event. Also, consider the way you begin the event; it will set the tone and the audience’s expectations.

6. Use the break-fast as an opportunity The break-fast is a great way to build community among your young adult audience, as well as relationships between them. The break-fast is both a culmination of an intense and immersive personal and collective experience. That shared moment of ending a fast together creates a sense of “we did it!” and thus a foundation to build strong relationships between the young adults in attendance. Who hosts the break-fast? Where it is held, and what food will be served? Keeping young adults in mind when answering these questions will enable you to make the most of this opportunity.

7. Emphasize comfort and meaning around attire Many young adults have a childhood memory of fitting themselves into their uncomfortable, dressy synagogue outfits. A great way to help young adults shake the memory of what they did not like about attending High Holiday services as children is to let them know that they should wear what makes them comfortable, and to educate them about your community’s typical customs for High Holiday dress.

8. Showcase young leadership The best way to introduce your community to young adults is to showcase young leaders who are enthusiastic and committed to your community. These young leaders can then initiate the relationship-building process with newcomers in an authentic, peer-to-peer manner.

9. Offer preparation workshops in advance Empower young adults to experience the depth and power of the High Holidays by offering to teach melodies, discuss the meaning of the prayers, or study some texts. When the holidays arrive, they can devote their thoughts to the essence of the experience and enjoy it in full.

10. Keep it going, and follow up Just as some learning before the High Holidays can tremendously elevate the experience, following up on it can bridge that meaning beyond the 10 Days of Awe. Scheduling coffee dates and finding time for follow-up conversations and activities in the weeks after the High Holidays (particularly around Sukkot) can help transition a one-time experience into ongoing engagement.