During the High Holy Days that begin Sunday night, many Jews will make their once-a-year visit to a synagogue, a brief contact with the religion that otherwise to them is mainly an ethnic identity.
To rabbis who dream of drawing their congregants toward a more devout way of life, that makes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur a moment when every word must be calculated and carefully weighed.Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Mass., for example, draws some 1,200 people to High Holy Day services, but attendance for weekly Shabbat services averages only about 150.
And Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum is proud of that figure: Most Conservative synagogues manage to draw even fewer of their members to weekly observance.
Rosenbaum's unceasing struggle against secularism was the focus of "And They Shall Be My People: An American Rabbi and His Congregation," Paul Wilkes' 1994 book.
As the original book ended, it seemed that Rosenbaum might have pushed too hard. Amid struggles between Rosenbaum and the synagogue's board over how to eliminate a $210,000 deficit, Wilkes wrote that the rabbi's very job seemed to be in jeopardy.
"Did the people of Beth Israel want to continue paying a man who, like the prophets of old, would continue to point out their shortcomings?" he wrote.
But in the just-released paperback edition, the budget deficit has been closed, the rabbi is signed to a new three-year contract and more and more synagogue members are making a deeper commitment to their religion.
"The congregation is stronger than it has ever been," says Rosenbaum, who disputes that he was ever in danger of being fired.
But even Beth Israel's relatively strong Sabbath attendance places the synagogue behind most Christian denominations in that category, Rosenbaum concedes. He sees that as manifestations of secular American society's willingness to accept Jews, and of the religion's tradition of debate.
"Jews tend to be, because of the nature of our tradition, more skeptical," he said in a telephone interview. "It's a strength of ours but . . . there may even be a bias in our religion that would draw us away from being more devout."