How to Choose a High Holidays Venue

So, moving to D.C. this time of year definitely is an interesting experience. It’s the beginning of the new academic year, the end of summer internships, and most of all, the beginning of the high holidays. Luckily, D.C.’s Jewish community provides all sorts of venues for partying like it’s 5772. How you figure out where to go for services when you’re brand new is a whole other debacle, though. And it could inspire you to find the right shul to attend for holidays, the rest of the year, and even the rest of your time in D.C.

Finding the right place to gather your thoughts and connect with God and others depends largely on what you want to get out of the shul-going experience. The month of Elul, a rather reflective month in the Jewish calendar year, gives way to that sort of self-discovery and decision-making for personal growth.

Decide if you want to hear music, how much singing you feel comfortable with, and how much English and/or Hebrew you want your service to include. Would you prefer a large congregation, or a smaller, more intimate one?

For example, Tikkun Leil Shabbat incorporates music and singing into its service as a focus, and service is accompanied by acoustic guitar and percussion. The services are egalitarian as well. TLS meets on Friday night once every three weeks, but the synagogue offers “Shabbat to go” supplies so you can celebrate even if there isn’t a meeting.

The Washington Hebrew Congregation has cantors, a full choir, and a live instrumental band to give congregants a more musical service for Shabbat services. “Contemporary” services are also held about once a month by Rabbi Fabricant or Rabbi Miller to incorporate folk and contemporary guitar music to lead the congregation.

Does it matter to you whether there’s a mechitzah or not? Would female involvement in the service pique your interest? There’s a shul in D.C. to fulfill every one of these options, and egalitarianism has become a hot topic to make synagogues a little more varied. DC Minyan in Dupont, while it has female involvement, still has separate seating without a mechitzah. Kesher Israel in Georgetown’s separated seating is a bit more prominent, in that the women’s section is a balcony above the men’s services.

At Rosh Pina, a woman leads Kabbalat Shabbat services for Friday night, while the men take the lead on mincha and ma’ariv.  On Shabbos morning, men lead shacharit and musaf, and a woman leads pesukei d’zimra. Both women and men receive aliyot and lein from the Torah. There is still a mechitzah at Rosh Pina to separate seating.

Many synagogues, while trying to bring women into the services more, are still finding the balance between egalitarian and halachically-correct. Trying out different services may prove to be a good experiment to find out where your comfort level is on the issue.

And you’ll need to decide if you prefer a more open format for services, or a traditional one, like the Chabad in Dupont. Keep in mind, that Orthodox services tend to go long on holidays, so if you’re not one to sit and pray from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., a shorter service might be more ideal.

Rachel Bernstein is a new Gather the Jews columnist who will be writing a weekly post about her experiences as a newcomer to the DC Jewish scene.

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