Our synagogue has always included info for purchasing lulav and etrog with High Holidays tickets/info.Very strategic.Some people purchase a set and never pick it up so it gives us a couple of extra sets for shulgoers and school kids.
My mother z"l felt that on the first two days of Sukkot, you should expect newcomers -- people who really care about coming to shul -- to check you out. She reasoned that they went to their parents for the High Holidays but they want to see what the local shul is like for their little kids. Some years, she is proven right.
A previous Education Director created a program that has surprised me with its acceptance among our community. On the Sunday just before Sukkot or during CholHamoed Sukkot, religious school classes are held at the homes of students’ families who have a Sukkah. Of course a class can meet in the synagogue’s sukkah as well. It is wonderful that in every grade there is at least one family who puts up a sukkah. The teachers plan the morning’s curriculum and the parents provide food. Additionally, we have Ushpizin. Our rabbi, our Ed Director and I dress up as characters from the Tanach and coordinate visits to the sukkot.
I enjoy telling “The Dead Etrog” story of Shalom Aleichem (which I have adapted/edited) especially when Sukkot falls in late October.
Simchat Torah: 500 years ago, people would wear the torah crowns on their heads on Simchat Torah. About 30 years ago this custom was revived and remade – our congregation enjoys this. People wear silly hats and dress more casually on Simchat Torah. (Some people bring wardrobes of outrageous hats that they change several times during the morning.) We have snacks available all morning, not just after an Aliyah to the Torah. We have also clung to the tradition of having three Torah scrolls read from simultaneously so that as many folks as possible can not only have an Aliyah but also do a Torah reading. We conclude the day with a generous deli lunch which is our victory celebration for having concluded the season of chagim.
Pesach:I have read/told two stories – The Celebrants, by S. Agnon, and The Wisdom of the Letter Resh, by D. Pessin – which explore the theme of people forming families, but not the stereotypical romantic movie type of plot. In The Celebrants, a widow and widower find each other on the first night of Pesach. I think some of our attendees can see themselves in this story. It reminds all of us to be hospitable to one another. In the Wisdom of the Letter Resh, a child and grownup become a foster family. On a metaphorical level, the characters in both stories can characterize God and the people of Israel, moving towards each other towards a covenantal relationship. These stories can be companions to readings of Shirhashirim.
Shavuot we have a 'Day School' service.This can be a great vehicle for reaching out to Day School families who are less involved in the synagogue community. Depending on the cohort of kids they will lead more or less of the service including torah readings and haftara. I have tried to expand this, inviting day school kids to lead hallel and torah service on the other regalimnonYizkor days.
I have adapted an English version of the Book of Ruth found in Siddur Sim Shalom to be a script for 8 to 10 actors. This has worked very well with high school students but could be used with anyone and can be used to anchor a discussion of the Book of Ruth. Alternately, I organize a Hebrew reading of the entire Book of Ruth – First night, first chapter; first day, second chapter; second night, third chapter; and second day, fourth chapter. People may not hear every chapter, but everyone who comes to shul during Shavuot hears at least one chapter. I might expand this to Pesach with shirHashirim and Sukkot with Kohelet. Currently I just read one chapter on the Shabbat during these chagim. Even if you don’t read the whole chapter it gives a great flavor to the service, even if it’s a thinly attended evening minyan.
We are trying a new activity next week on Erev Shavuot. The Sinai Experience is geared towards children 2 – 7 and their families. We had a fantastic drum circle teacher as a guest artist in the preschool, we hope the kids will tell their parents how much they loved the activity, we are having the same person at our Sinai Experience. We will begin at 6 pm with pizza and salad. We will lead the kids around with percussion to simulate wandering in the desert. We hope to construct Mt. Sinai out of stacked playroom equipment. Everyone will generate a LOT of noise with drumming and other percussion instruments to simulate the thunder and lightening scene at Mt. Sinai. I will probably play the role of God and “give the torah” to my Moses puppet atop the mountain. Then we will “teach” the Torah to the kids by reading a book together and we will sing several songs. Ice cream is for dessert. We will finish up just as the evening minyan begins. This is a great example of an experiential program, isn’t it? Our ECS director, Rabbi Sarah Meytin, thought it up.
All the Chagim on which we DON’T say Yizkor:
The people who come to shul on chagim are self-selected and more traditional so we haven't been challenged to come up with alternatives. I seek to involve more lay people in leading shacharit, hallel, and musaf on those days.
Depending on the religious bent of the Preschool Director and/or key preschool families, we sometimes have nice preschool age gatherings on any Chag.A “Torah Party” is an appealing kind of name.The format depends on what the leader wants to do.
A question for our future: We teach our preschoolers about these chagim, but then our preschool is closed on the actual day. And most of the parents work.Rabbinic and congregant input, as well as consideration for the skills and needs of the staff, is needed to determine what our preschools are going to offer on those days. We have a potential target audience of grandparents taking care of kids on those days. This might be a great opportunity for us.
At a recent customer service seminar, I learned how the Ritz Carlton uses the five senses to provide a superior experience. We can easily incorporate sensory experiences into services during chagim. Years ago it seemed that we omitted all the unusual rituals and prayers from the chagim so that you had a shorter, and frankly, more boring service. I think we should embrace the unique elements of each chag, exploring the unique rituals and prayers for each chag. We can also expand our ideas to incorporate each of the five senses for all the chagim.
Sight: We take all our fake flower arrangements and display them on the bimah to symbolize the Bikkurim. Occasionally, a religious or preschool class will make decorations as well. We already have great visual symbols for Sukkot. What could be some visual symbols to have in shul on Pesach? Taking out two torah scrolls is one easy visual signal that it is a chag; what are some others? Wearing a white robe for Geshem and Tal, for example. You know the people on the board who don’t want to spend money on salaries, but want to renovate the interior? They want to provide a superior visual experience for all who enter our building. So let’s be supportive of them.
Smell: We have the Etrog on Sukkot. We can think of other items. Havdalah enables us to use b’samim. What other olfactory stimulation could we offer? Can people enter our building and smell challah baking? What are some other pleasing scents that we can have in our lobby?
Touch: Are our synagogue furnishings comfortable to sit on? Or annoying? How about the Kiddush table? Pleasant table linens? We can think of items specific to each holiday.
Taste:Can we experience the food of each chag, or our Kiddush in general, as an integral part of our religious experience? Let’s make the food important, rather than dismiss it as an afterthought, or the burden on Sisterhood or other volunteers, or something for freeloaders
Sound:We want our cantorial contributions to be experienced as special audio signals of each chag. The unique prayers and melodies have always served to communicate the unique feature of each chag. The beauty of our singing is just as important as each of the other senses.
We can all work together to make our synagogue a pleasing experience for everyone who enters, 365 days a year.