Rosh Hashanah in a Secular Community

Rosh Hashanah is a sacred High Holiday in the Jewish calendar. It is the beginning of the 10 Days of Awe, and is the day on which God writes, among other things, who will live and who will die. How, then, can it possibly be observed as a secular event?

Somehow, indeed, it can be. Here at the Workmen's Circle, the secular observance of Rosh Hashanah has evolved over the past 20 years, from an informal gathering of a few dozen people in a member's backyard, to a carefully crafted and deeply moving community experience attended each year by close to 500 members, family and friends.
How does this work? For one thing, while our community’s practices do not rest in prayer or worship, we deeply value Jewish culture, respect its venerable history and cherish its rich ethical foundation. We also understand the magnetic power of ritual that draws us together communally for these annual celebrations, satisfying our need for group expression and contemplation, even without invocation of God. By "we," I include not only those Jewish by birth or conversion, but also friends, partners and relatives who, although not "officially" Jewish, feel comfortable and inspired to join as full participants.
The moral heart of our secular machzor (prayer book) focuses on the 1,000-year old prayer, Unetaneh Tokef. This prayer tells us that what we are shapes what we become, but that we are also able to influence the outcome, through tefillah, tzedakah, and teshuvah. While these words are traditionally translated as “prayer," charity," and "repentance," respectively, we understand them a bit differently: we see tefillah as having been derived from the word for honest self-judgment, and tzedakah as derived from the word for a just person. We understand teshuvah's roots in the word khet as it refers to "missing the mark" in archery. The Jewish concept of sin, then, is the missing of one's goals, and losing sight of what's important. In our machzor, instead of repentance, teshuvah means "turning" to hit the mark, to achieve what we truly value in life.
The Yizkor (memorial) Service forms the emotional core of our observance. We kindle a yahrtzeit (memorial) candle, recite the Mourner’s Kaddish (prayer extolling God that is said by mourners), and offer the opportunity for those present, one at a time, to say aloud the names of family members or friends who have passed away. We read a poem or two, and we also sing the song "When I'm Gone," by Phil Ochs.
There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone
And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone
And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here.
There aren't many dry eyes by the time we conclude this segment. Sprinkled throughout the service are other songs, poems and readings in Yiddish, Ladino, Hebrew and English, the blowing of the shofar, and an I.L. Peretz short story appropriate to the occasion. We also sing the Sh'ma together, "to express our unity as a community, to maintain our connection with our history and traditions, and to honor the principle that we must all stay true to our own beliefs and speak them with pride and dedication." And we hear the words of a member of our community, who offers his or her personal, secular version of a d'var torah or teaching story. The speaker chooses his or her d'var subject, which vary in content from year to year, but always reflect the Jewish themes and values of the holiday.
This is Boston Workmen's Circle's Rosh Hashanah observance. It resonates with the familiar sounds and invocations of the traditional service, but its focus is on the part each of us plays in this world, and how we can "turn" to improve ourselves and the lot of our fellow human beings. We remember the dead, "whose memory continues to light the world after they have passed from it," and who remind us to do our best to live meaningful lives. It is a special day in the year, an event focused on individuals and community, on calm reflection, on touching our hearts and minds. It is secular and, many would say, spiritual too. Who would have thought?
Mike Felsen
President, Boston Workmen’s Circle
A version of this piece was previously posted on
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