13 Ways to Spark Connection During the High Holidays

Humans are like stones. When the stone stands alone nothing happens. But when one stone hits against another it creates sparks of light.

~Rabbi Mordechai of Lecovitz

On the side of Peninsula Sinai Congregation’s (PSC) building in Foster City, a big banner reads “Small enough to know you, large enough to serve you,” an indication of how personal relationships are valued at this conservative shul.

I met Rabbi Corey Helfand in his office to learn how PSC connects with people. It’s the middle of Elul – the month of introspection preceding the High Holidays, and a busy time of year. I have barely entered the building when I am warmly welcomed by the administrative staff seated at the entrance.

As a Federation consultant and community leader, I work to build cultures of belonging in the local Jewish world, and have seen community building practices transform organizations and create a strong sense of purpose for their members.

I asked Rabbi Helfand: “what can we do during this time of year to make people feel seen, heard and part of a community?”

He smiled and replied, “everything we do here is aimed at that goal and you don’t have to wait for the Holidays to do it. Culture change doesn’t happen in a single service or gathering, it’s an ongoing, explicit and intentional effort that needs to be nourished and authentic.”

In that spirit, Rabbi Helfand and I united to identify 13 different ways to create deeper connections among the people you gather, whether it be at your holiday table, synagogue services, or community events:

With Friends and Family

  1. Secret envelopes – Give each guest their own question in an envelope to answer. For example:
    • Something new in my life this past year
    • Something I hope to add to my life next year
    • Something I wish for myself / my family / my community / the world in the coming year
    • An important lesson I learned this year
    • A significant experience I am looking forward to in the coming year
  2. Team building – Divide your guests into small teams and pre-prepare a holiday trivia game (there are plenty to find online) with the winners getting first dips of apple in honey.
  3. Letting go and starting anew – Place two large jars on a table. Pass out notecards in two colors. On one, write a wish for the new year; on the other write about things you want to let go. Share what you wrote and place in the appropriate jar. Save the wish jar to review next year.
  4. An apologies wall – Apologies are an integral part of the high-holiday tradition. It’s always difficult to apologize, for children and adults alike. On an empty wall at home, put up a big sheet of paper and hand out sticky notes. Ask the guests to write apologies and post on the wall. Invite people to share.
  5. Sharing wishes – Pre-prepare each guest’s name on a piece of a paper and put it in a hat. Before dinner starts, have the guests choose a name from the hat and take a moment to wish that person something for the new year.
  6. Memory – Ask people to think back over the years and share a memory of either a holiday tradition and why it has stuck with them; alternatively, share what they particularly like about the holiday and why.
  7. Invite someone new to your meal – While many of us share holiday rituals and traditions with the same friends and family year after year, it’s also important to remember that not everyone is included in holiday celebrations. Why not make it a tradition to add someone new to your meal or gathering, and reach out to those who might not have a place to go?

In Community Groups

  1. Rituals – Symbolic moments repeated year after year are how we build trust, safety, and a common purpose. For example: 
    • Inviting different generations to blow the Shofar together
    • Lighting up the darkness – by preparing for Havdalah, the closing prayer for Yom Kippur, by using glow sticks and singing arm in arm
    • Tashlich potluck in the park – community-wide Tashlich (ceremony to cast away sins into a body of water) with family games and discussions about acts of contrition and forgiveness.
  2. Involve others – Offer an alternative learning session during the holidays and open it up to others to lead. Sessions should be interactive and offer opportunities for participants to share, such as drama sessions, inter-faith learning, and meditation.
  3. Humor – While this seems obvious, humor connects, and laughter bonds. Rabbi Helfand shares that he intentionally adds humor to his sermons as a way of changing the mood. The holidays are serious, but it’s important to laugh and create the sense of connection through laughter.
  4. Storytelling – Sharing stories is all about connecting to others. Stories help create a common ground that transcends cultures and generations. Rabbi Helfand does this at PSC in several ways:
    • Prior to the holiday, ask people to share their personal stories about repetition in their lives and use their stories as introductions to each “Amida,” the main sections of the prayer service.
    • During services, encourage people to share their own stories.
  5. Connecting through memory – The High Holidays are also about remembering those who are not with us. Although he admits it’s not his own idea, Rabbi Helfand has created the tradition of asking people to write a short story about their loved ones who have passed away. Over the years, a beautiful booklet of memories and stories has formed.
  6. Introductions – Ask people to introduce themselves to their neighbors. “I encourage people, give them a free pass, to walk up and “re-introduce” themselves to all those familiar faces whose names they don’t remember from last year.”

The Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund’s Culture of Belonging Project is helping to re-design Jewish life around strengthening belonging and human connections. Maia Tchetchik Sharir is a Culture and Leadership Consultant who helps lead that project and works to bring the best out of people and organizations in the Bay Area. Rabbi Corey Helfand is the Senior Rabbi at the Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, which received a two-year grant from the Federation to support its shift from a traditional membership model to a relationship-based network.

Categories: Holidays, Community


September 06, 2018


Maia Tchetchik Sharir