Of all the cultural practices associated with American Jews, the Kol Nidre appeal, I used to think, has got to be among the most ill-considered, let alone poorly timed, of rituals. No sooner do American Jews, most of whom have not set foot inside a synagogue since the previous Yom Kippur, take their seats, than they’re exhorted to dig deep into their pockets and make a contribution to the synagogue exchequer — this, in addition to bearing the hefty costs of High Holy Day seats. By thrusting money front and center at the expense of loftier matters — and so early on in the proceedings — the Kol Nidre appeal has always struck me as unseemly and in poor taste, a rude, intrusive start to what should otherwise be a period of quiet contemplation and soul-searching.
Surely, I’m not alone in feeling this way. I suspect most American Jews, including some members of the clergy, share my views, and yet the Kol Nidre appeal has become a fixture of American synagogue life all the same. Why is that? In search of answers, I turned to the historical record, to newspapers and archival collections such as the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Joseph and Miriam Ratner Center for the Study of Conservative Judaism. What I found in the course of my research has led me to change my mind about the validity of the Kol Nidre appeal. Not entirely — I’m still no fan — but enough to temper my harsh judgment with something that comes pretty close to grudging respect. For the origins of the Kol Nidre or Yom Kippur appeal as it is known, often interchangeably, says a great deal about the adaptability and responsiveness of American Jewry, its vivid sociological imagination and its spirit of improvisation.
From what I’ve been able to make out, the first systematic use of Erev Yom Kippur as an occasion for fund raising dates back to World War I: Rabbis throughout the United States appealed directly to their congregants for funds with which to support their European cousins whose homes and lives had been destroyed by the ravages of war.
The New York Times reported that at Kol Nidre services in October 1916, the Rev. Joseph Silverman of New York’s prestigious Temple Emanu-El “appealed to his auditors to do all [within] their power to aid Jewish [war] sufferers.” On that occasion, and in the years that immediately followed, Silverman’s words “evoked an instant response,” inspiring his congregants — as well as those of other synagogues across the country — to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in “free-will offerings” in just one day. Over the decades, Kol Nidre appeals have been made on behalf of the Palestine Emergency Fund, the State of Israel and the resettlement of refugees, as well as for such mundane causes as retiring the temple’s mortgage and fixing its plumbing (or what, these days, is more euphemistically called the “infrastructure”).
To be sure, money was no stranger to the sanctuary: For centuries, it was common practice for the recipient of an honor, or kibud, to announce in tones loud enough for everyone to hear that he had made a donation, a kind of thank you gift, in return. But the Kol Nidre appeal was something else again, an entirely distinctive approach to the rituals of giving. For starters, the Kol Nidre appeal, unlike the traditional kibud donation, was not a gesture of reciprocity nor was it keyed to a specific moment in the liturgy. It stood apart from all that. What’s more, the Kol Nidre appeal sought to engage the hearts and pocketbooks of the entire congregation, its womenfolk as well as its menfolk, the extremely well-heeled and those of more moderate means. Democratizing the process of giving, the Yom Kippur appeal challenged everyone in the pews to ante up something. And it did so at that one moment in the entire year when American Jewry, the most idiosyncratic, voluntaristic and freewheeling of communities, actually came together to form a collective, a kehilla.
Given the stakes, it’s no surprise that the community’s leaders devised all sorts of innovative ways to mount a successful appeal. In some cases, synagogues made quick use of the telephone to solicit pledges of money in advance of Kol Nidre. In others, they turned to the mail, providing their congregants with postcards on which to record their contribution, or, alternatively, enclosing a prepaid stamped envelope in which to send in a donation. “May we look forward to an early response?” inquired the president of New York’s Congregation Ansche Chesed in the 1940s. “It means so much to us.” More creative still was the pledge card with its turn-down flaps, which, then as now, greeted congregants when they first arrived at services on Erev Yom Kippur. Designed in such a way that charitably-inclined worshippers would not have to violate any religious precepts when making a contribution, this kind of pledge card was in use as early as 1933 by the Brooklyn Jewish Center, its tabs ranging from contributions of $5 and $10 to a high of $250 and $500.
In each and every instance, the community’s leaders had to square the imperatives of raising money with the rhythms of a sacred service. Caught between the sociological realities of modern Jewish life and its onerous fiscal demands, both the rabbinate and the synagogue’s lay leaders tried to minimize the attendant discord. They may not have succeeded, as any contemporary shul-goer knows all too well, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. On this the historical record is loud, clear and unequivocal. Writing in 1939 to “Dear Mr. ___|\___|_,” the president of the Brooklyn Jewish Center encouraged him to make an advance contribution “so that Kol Nidre services might go on with the least interruption.” In Manhattan, meanwhile, the president of Ansche Chesed wrote to “dear friends” of the congregation in 1946 asking them to let him know prior to Yom Kippur how much they intended to give that year “in order that the Congregation will not be unduly delayed in its dignified and beautiful Kol Nidre service.” Like so much else associated with American Jewish life, synthesis and compromise carried the day.
So this Yom Kippur when your one brief stab at religious consciousness has been interrupted by an appeal for funds, take heart: Consider it American Jewry’s salute to the power of community.
Shana tova to one and all.
This story "Before We Begin, Let Us All Reach Into Our Pockets" was written by Jenna Weissman Joselit.