A Conversation with Rabbi Jan Urhbach



During this year’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, Rabbi Jan Uhrbach with the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons will use a new prayer book, published by the Conservative Movement. Rabbi Uhrbach was a member of the editorial committee which painstakingly crafted this prayer book over the course of 12 years. In anticipation of the High Holy Days, Rabbi Uhrbach explains the importance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and how the new prayer book is both more traditional and more progressive.

What prompted the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly to publish “Machzor Lev Shalem for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” the new prayer book for the High Holy Days?

I think it was responsive to a sense that the people’s needs and expectations have changed. That the ethos which gave rise to the last High Holy Day prayer book that the Conservative Movement published in the early 1970s had changed. That there was now a desire and a need for, in some sense, a more traditional and more progressive [prayer book]. Something that would help people make meaning in a different and more profound way of the liturgy.

What do you mean by both more traditional and more progressive?

Across the Jewish world there has been a move back to more tradition, [like] more Hebrew in services and a desire to engage with the riches of our tradition, but engage with it in a way that is relevant and meaningful today. So in this prayer book the Hebrew text is more complete than the previous prayer book. In that sense it is somewhat more traditional but it is also radically more progressive in terms of having commentary, the nature of that commentary, alternative readings, a breadth of authors, a transliteration. [The new prayer book] acknowledges different family structures — families that don’t necessarily have a mother or father are acknowledged — and brought onto the page. It shows different approaches to theology.

I read that it took 10 years for the editorial committee, which you were a member of, to complete this new prayer book.

It took 12 years. I was involved for seven of those years. It was without question, for everyone on the committee, an experience of a lifetime. It was just the most thrilling, rich conversation and learning experience. We met once a month every month on a Sunday night and then on Monday. We met in New York City but the committee was based all over the country. The people who couldn’t be there in person did that part by phone. There were nine members plus an ex-officio, who represented the rabbinical assembly who was the publisher.

That’s a very long time and in the last 12 years the world has experienced a lot of changes. Did the committee’s perceptions of or intent for the book change over that period as well?

On the one hand, when you are working on a book like this ideally it will last for decades. We were careful to make sure that we wouldn’t put things in a book that spoke to us in 2008, 2010 and 2012 but by 2015 were irrelevant. That is a lot easier said than done. One thing all of us came away with was a profound deepening of our respect for the liturgy and its ability to stand the test of time. We were trying to be responsive not to specific events but to contemporary life in the broadest sense and to be on the one hand general enough so that the book won’t become outdated and specific enough to be really meaningful and engaging at a very personal and a very gut level.

There were many things that changed over the course of time we spent together that had to do with our own deepening understanding and the structure of the High Holy Day services and also as a result of comments. [The prayer book] was beta-tested by rabbis who served as readers. We got a lot of input and that affected the way that certain things evolved.

How will this new prayer book change the services at the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons?

It will have an enormous impact on what our services will be this year. It is tremendously exciting and enriching for those who are going to worship. We have been a synagogue celebrating our bah mitzvah, our 13th year, and we have been steadily growing and growing in numbers and in depth. In any case I think this is a very exciting year for us.

With this new Machzor, [prayer book], I am expecting another thing, a very empowering [experience] for the people sitting in the pews. I try to conduct service and do enough explanation along the way so that people feel engaged and understand what is going on. I try to make service emotionally engaging and intellectually challenging. [And for those who still don’t understand] I try to make the music convey the meaning of the prayer. This book enables people to have that without me. People can sit in the synagogue and engage with the liturgy and themes of the day in their own way. Some people may find meaning in this part of a poem. Some people may want to read the prayer in English. This allows people to have ownership of their own experience and also to have an internal experience that is more self-directed … for people who have always felt alienated. “The book doesn’t speak to me. It isn’t about my life.” [For example] it either is all men or assumes heterosexual relationships or it assumes that everyone comes from loving families. I hope that everyone in the room will feel, “this is my tradition. This is about me. I am not just doing this out of fealty to my parents or grandparents. It speaks to the essence of my life.” That is going to change everything.

On the other hand the energy of the service is so powerful and rich that it will take the inspirational factor to a factor of 10. The layout of the book enables a different engagement with the service. Hebrew and English numbers are on the same page —135 in Hebrew is 135 in English. There are all kinds of flags and markers to let people know where they are in the service.

For our non-Jewish readers, could you explain the importance of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holiday?

We sometimes call them the High Holy Days. The Hebrew terms means, “Days of Awe.” What these days are primarily about is an annual coming to terms for each of us as individuals but in the context of communal support. [To think of] who we are as people, how we live the time that we are given and what we think we need to change. Fundamentally that is what they are about. It is not an easy thing to do and ideally we are preparing for a month before. We are obligated to approach anybody that we have hurt and ask for forgiveness and if there is anything concrete we can do to fix the damage we have done. It is a real soul searching and figuring out what it is about us and our character that results in the behaviors we aren’t so proud of and how we can change that. So Rosh Hashanah, which is the new year, is considered to be the anniversary of the creation of the world, that is one opinion, or the anniversary of the creation of humanity. That theme right there raises the question of “why.” Why is the human being here? Why am I here as a particular expression of the human species. It puts front and center the fact of the creator and it not being us. From that there is a sense of the presence of god and the awareness of creature dignity which comes from the responsibility. We spend the next week taking that in and doing the Hebrew work of Teshuvah, and what it means literally is both return and response. It sometimes translates to repentance, but it is repentance in a different sense than in English. It is returning to a true self and responding to a sense of the divine. We spend the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur doing that work. During Yom Kippur we hope to attain a level of purification.

One misconception is that [these holidays] are somehow depressing or that they are supposed to be about beating ourselves up. Yom Kippur is by many accounts the most joyful day of the year. It is the day we can begin again. It comes partly as a result of our own work not just divine grace, but there is an acceptance of a gift and we feel healed within our own sense of internal conflict. We heal relationships that we have loved and perhaps missed. We have healed a relationship with God who we have loved and missed.