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author biography
Gil Troy received his undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees from Harvard University and is a professor of History at McGill University.
The author of five books, four of which concern American presidential history, and one of which concerns his own “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.”
Professor Gil Troy contributes regularly to a variety of publications and appears frequently in the media as a commentator and analyst on subjects relating to history and politics.

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`Can We Have Meaningful High Holidays?`
Filed under Judaism, Jewish history & culture, Opinion Editorials – on Wednesday, October 08, 2008 – By: Troy, Professor Gil

For a few North American Jews, the “Yamim Noraim,” the days of awe, will be profound. Yom Kippur will culminate a repentance process that begins with the start of the month of Elul, more than five weeks earlier. These Jews will have put their own spiritual houses in order through contemplation, prayer, study, and asking forgiveness from those they possibly wronged. When they gather together in synagogue on Yom Kippur, they will feel the power of parallelism, as the prayers, the rituals, the community, reinforce their already powerful personal experiences.

Alas, for most North American Jews, the “Yamim Noraim,” will have a different meaning. “Nora” in Hebrew can mean awesome – and awful. And for most of us, especially our youth, these High Holidays will be more awful than awesome. Enduring two or three days of communal prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they will sit uncomprehending through long, boring prayers, sung in an ancient tongue, glancing at their watches, waiting for the interminable services to end so they can gorge themselves at their holiday meal. Some dramatic moments might break the monotony, as when the Torah is paraded around or the shofar is blown. The cantor and choir will periodically entertain with a particularly moving or catchy tune. The rabbi will try to shake his flock from its spiritual torpor. But for most, the experience will be so excruciating they will vote with their feet – avoiding the synagogue for another year when out of ancestral guilt or family loyalty they will endure it all again.

As with the Emperor’s New Clothes, doesn’t anyone ever want to shout, “the king is naked,” admitting that this isn’t working? Doesn’t anyone wish that given all of our community’s smarts, given all the emotional and financial resources our families and our synagogues invest in the High Holidays, that we could do a better job?

The problem starts with our collective ignorance and passivity. Judaism is not meant to be enjoyed like a Broadway show or endured like an annual spiritual enema. Nor is Judaism seasonal, to be sampled three days a year in synagogue in the fall, then for a few days at home during the winter for Chanukkah and during the spring for Passover. And Judaism is deeper than our juvenile, “let’s be friends, make amends, now it’s time to say I’m sorry” approach to the High Holidays suggests.

Perhaps this year we can trigger both a personal and institutional revolution in Judaism. It must begin with individuals ready to commit, to plunge into the depths of this ancient but surprisingly relevant way of life and system of thought. We need a revolution of learning, wherein we commit to serious study and engagement to understand what Judaism is all about – and what it can teach us. We need a burst of doing, wherein we stop approaching Judaism as consumers, sampling what we like and avoiding what we dislike, to instead become owners, taking responsibility for our spiritual and communal lives. And we need to ride the cycles of celebrating, understanding that the weekly Sabbath and the periodic festivals give us great opportunities to delight in life and move beyond a model of Judaism as all work, guilt and heart-burn-generating foods.

If we as individuals start working toward a more engaging, expansive, upbeat, profound, sophisticated, integrated approach to Judaism, our synagogues will both lead and follow. Too many synagogues, too many services, are built on the assumption of Jewish ignorance, creating a lowest common denominator Judaism. Rabbis too often forget their mandate to teach, to challenge, to stretch congregants. Instead, they just keep to “tradition” which often means presiding over a large, bored audience. If rabbis felt their congregants were open to deeper approaches, most would respond happily.

With elections taking place everywhere – in Canada, the United States, Israel, even Jerusalem – it is easy to dismiss calls for reform as empty promises. But North American Jewry desperately needs change. Even if Jews only enter the synagogue two or three times a year, we all deserve a quality experience. We should start with smaller, more intimate groupings and shorter, less passive services. But we should not end until we have revolutionized our synagogues – and ourselves.
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