By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org
Click photo to download. Caption: Cantor Arik Wollheim of Congregation Beth Jacob of Beverly Hills, Calif., pictured, discusses High Holidays prayer with JNS.org.
LOS ANGELES—The holiest days
on the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are largely spent in
synagogue. Yet prayer isn’t usually the focus when Jews prepare for the High
Holidays, observes Cantor Arik Wollheim.
“Hopefully people go through
this process of repentance, and they give charity, but what about prayer?”
Wollheim tells JNS.org. “People
neglect that. How many people open the prayer book before Rosh Hashanah and Yom
Kippur and go over the davening?”
The answer, Wollheim says,
is almost no one. But he is looking to change that. At Congregation Beth Jacob
in Beverly Hills, Calif., where he is in his first year as cantor, Wollheim
organized a sing-along preparation event in advance of the High Holidays, in
addition to posting melodies on the synagogue’s website.
During this year’s High Holidays
at Beth Jacob, an Orthodox synagogue, Wollheim will be accompanied by the
Maccabeats, the popular Jewish a cappella group that burst onto the scene in
2010 with their hit Hanukkah song “Candlelight.” A student of famed cantor Yitzchak
Eshel, Wollheim—formerly the cantor at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford,
Conn., retired U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s synagogue—sat down with JNS.org to give his perspective on the Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
JNS.org: What are the challenges of trying to engage
a congregation in High Holidays services?
Cantor Arik Wollheim: “For the holidays, together with the regulars, the
people who come every week, or several times a month, in every congregation you
also have a number of people that come only for the High Holidays. And they are
a little bit disconnected with what’s going on throughout the year in the
Click photo to download. Caption: An illustration of Jews praying in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Credit: Maurycy Gottlieb via Wikimedia Commons.
“The challenge is [figuring
out] how to create a service that makes everybody happy. My approach is to
create a salad of styles and selections. And by that I mean, for instance, I
use classical cantorial music, what I call ‘nice oldies’ that congregations
sing, that everybody knows. I use Israeli songs. The most recent melodies that
religious music and the yeshiva world provide. And I use every form of Jewish
music, almost. My challenge is, what’s the balance between all those different
“Especially here in America,
and also in Israel, not everybody understands all the text. Thank God we have
prayer books with an English translation, but it’s not the same [as
understanding the Hebrew], and people sometimes don’t bother to look at the
translations. It’s not that they don’t want to, but you’re engaged already in
the recitation of the prayer, you don’t have time to also look [at the