No Organ at the High Holy Days??

Several years ago, a long time congregant at our synagogue passed away. His widow wanted to do something for our synagogue in honor of her late husband. The synagogue meant a great deal to them. They both loved liturgical music and, with the input of our cantor at that time, decided to provide the necessary funds in order for the synagogue to purchase a new Baby Grand Piano and organ.

I know the piano is state of the art – I think it is a Steinway. I don’t know a whole lot about organs. I assume it is high quality freestanding moveable organ. It certainly is not like the organ at Central Synagogue in New York City. But it has served our synagogue well on the High Holy Days and perhaps a few other times throughout the year.

I am a member of our synagogue’s Religious Living Committee. I am the first to admit that my attendance at monthly meetings has been spotty at best due to work commitments. Anyway, after a recent meeting, our Cantor – Meredith Greenberg – asked the committee members via email how they felt about not using the organ at the High Holy Days.

I applaud Cantor Greenberg for approaching the High Holy Days by thinking “outside of the box”. The organ has that “high church” feel of our parents’ synagogues.  To me, the organ sound reminds me of a dirge.  I am of the belief that the more contemporary the music sounds, the better. Whether it be Shabbat or the High Holy Days.

I shared with the Cantor and the group that I thought this was a very good thing to do, that she would be able to find other instruments with better sounds to take its place. There were a few people on the committee who liked the fact that the organ reminded them of the special qualities of the High Holy Days as well as what the synagogue was like for them as they were growing up.

Except the guy who is in charge of the set up on the High Holy Days. He was just happy to not have to move the organ anymore.

Whatever the reason why people come on the High Holy Days – obligation, the need to be a part of a Jewish community, remembering the past, or all of the above – for a handful of days, lots of people will be in attendance. If the music is dirge-like and not contemporary, and offers no avenues for participation, will the majority of the people in the room be likely to come back and give Shabbat worship a try?

I really like the second day of Rosh Hashanah at our synagogue. Perhaps one third of the attendance from the day before.  The roles for the choir are replaced with participatory singing by the congregation. And the organ sits untouched.

It would be great if we could get more people to worship for both days. But the feelings of being part of a sacred community that permeate Rosh Hashanah #2 should be the primary goal for all of the Days of Awe. Replacing the organ with other instruments is a welcome change and a positive step towards this goal.

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