Online Atonement

Creative Cures for Your Yom Kippur Boredom

Many Jews find it hard to get through High Holiday prayer services without yawning. But this year, some are using online culture to create new ways of staving off boredom, writes Sigal Samuel.

Pascal Guyot / AFP / Getty Images

The weeks leading up to the Jewish High Holidays have seen a surge of opinion pieces all pointing out the same (admittedly parochial, yet to some, very important) problem. Abigail Pogrebin puts it best over at Tablet, in a piece titled “High Holiday Services Are Boring. Here’s How We Can Fix Them.” In her characteristically frank and funny way, she not only accurately diagnoses the boredom plaguing many American Jews, but also offers sound suggestions as to how both rabbis and congregants can start alleviating it.

Abigail focuses on Reform and Conservative Jews, many of whom check out during services because they don’t understand what’s being recited or how it connects to their lives, having not been “raised with rigorous Jewish instruction.” She recommends that congregants study the relevant texts in advance, noting parenthetically that “the Orthodox clearly operate in a separate sphere, often immersed from the womb in text.” Yet, as someone who grew up in the Modern Orthodox world, was fortunate enough to get that rigorous Jewish instruction, and has always been deeply immersed in Jewish texts, I still think High Holiday services are a slog. Which makes me suspect this isn’t only—or even primarily—a Reform and Conservative problem. Orthodox Jews get bored on Yom Kippur, too.

That suspicion is borne out by a recent Forward article published under the headline “Rabbis Declare War on Chit-Chat in Synagogue.” Apparently, chatter in Orthodox synagogues has reached such alarming levels that some have gone so far as to take out newspaper ads aimed at cajoling or threatening congregants into silence. For these Jews, the problem is not that they haven’t prepped the texts in advance or don’t know what the words in the mahzor mean. Take it from someone who’s been through the system: Orthodox students spend long hours every September not just parsing the prayers, but also teasing out their biblical allusions and rabbinic resonances, and becoming familiar with the historical contexts in which they were written. And yet, when it comes time to recite these prayers in synagogue, they still get fidgety. All of which raises the question: If you did enjoy a rigorous Jewish education and still find yourself getting bored on Yom Kippur, what can you do to keep yourself from yawning?

The answer, I think, is to get creative. This fall, many young Jews—and a number of start-ups that target young Jews—have taken matters into their own hands and done just that. So, for example, David Zvi Kalman, a friend of mine who grew up Modern Orthodox and is now working for Mechon Hadar and pursuing a PhD in Jewish and Islamic law at Penn, launched the website AtoneNet on August 17. Functioning as a sort of online confessional booth, the site invites users to anonymously post answers to one simple question: What do you want to ask forgiveness for this year?

AtoneNet takes its inspiration from that centerpiece of the Yom Kippur liturgy, Al Chet, which has worshippers rattling off a list of communal sins. But, David Zvi explains, “I don’t really know whether the sins on that list actually correspond to what we as a community want to apologize for. The al chet’s end up feeling like apologies for the sins of an imagined community, almost an idealized community of sinners.”

His idea was that divulging our sins online in the lead-up to Yom Kippur would provide not only a means of jumpstarting the repentance process, but also a way to reflect on what we think actually constitutes a sin in need of atonement. So, for example, when I scrolled through the posts on AtoneNet and saw users asking forgiveness for “being attracted to my own sex,” my heart clenched; I remembered with a pang that, though I take for granted that’s something to be celebrated and not atoned for, many Jews still apologize for their orientation every Yom Kippur.

Of course, there’s also a great voyeuristic pleasure to be reaped from trawling through other people’s transgressions. But AtoneNet isn’t just about voyeurism, which comparable sites, like PostSecret, offer in spades. It’s about having something you can take with you to synagogue on Yom Kippur to enhance your prayer experience. The site allows you to sign up for a print-read pamphlet containing all the responses that have been posted, so you can tuck it into your mahzor and take it out when it comes time for the Al Chet recitation. The idea here isn’t to replace the traditional liturgy, but to supplement and personalize it, to help make clear its relevance and poignancy. Which is exactly how I plan on staving off boredom this Yom Kippur.

It’s worth noting that AtoneNet isn’t the only website of its kind; this year, lots of Jews are capitalizing on online culture for the freshness it can bring to High Holiday services—particularly for young people. G-dcast, for example, has released a site called eScapegoat, which likewise invites users to anonymously share their sins, though the 120-character limit seems to be encouraging lighter, jokier responses. While eScapegoat is tied to a biblical motif rather than a specific piece of liturgy, and so doesn’t work as well as a mahzor insert, the site still allows you to “get notified at the end with the best entries.” I confess that I’m not entirely sure what they mean by “best.” Funniest? Weirdest? Most profound? Most salacious? Is it wrong if I’m hoping it’s the latter? Oh well—just one more thing I’ll get to atone for on Yom Kippur.