I am a frum, middle-aged woman who has B”H raised six frum kids into adulthood, some in the midst of growing their own Torah families.
Yet I haven’t spent a full Yom Kippur in shul in over 30 years.
My oldest child is 31, and my youngest is 14 years old. When the youngest was old enough to spend some time in shul with me, my goal was always to be there for Kedusha in the chazaras haShatz of Mussaf. The silent Shemoneh Esrei is long; I was better off saying that at home where she could play. Kol Nidrei was late, and it was not realistic to take even a 10-year-old for the duration of the night davening. If I was lucky, I might make Neilah, but often it would coincide with a meal time for my child.
When my youngest became Bas Mitzvah, she herself was motivated to spend more time in shul, so we would come for leining, say our long Shemoneh Esrei with the tzibur, and then I would fervently hope that she could hold out just until they finished Kedusha of Mussaf.
Being in shul for Kedushah felt significant to me. Many of the other tefillos I had become accustomed to saying at home as a yachid. Truth be told, my kavanah was often better in the privacy of my home. If the child at home was well occupied, I could even add the detailed Viduy found at the back of the Artscroll Machzor. But Kedusha is reserved for the holy merits of the tzibur, and I wanted the privilege of being able to join in those collective merits.
After her Bas mitzvah year, I felt my daughter was old enough to go home on her own when she felt too tired, weak, or restless to stay in shul any longer. She was certainly old enough to stay up through the Kol Nidrei service, so I anticipated a complete, meaningful day in shul come Yom Kippur.
Then my mother became more frail.
She lived in a senior residence, but came to stay with my family for Yamim Tovim. Yom Kippur was important to her, so I wheeled her to shul when she was ready to go in the morning, and hoped she would make it through Kedusha of Mussaf before I had to take her home and tend to her.
Mom has passed away and my youngest is now a teenager. I imagined that I would establish my place in shul come Yom Kippur and become familiar again with all the parts of the tefillah that I had missed over the years.
Our oldest son, with his wife and two small children, moved to our town this past summer. What joy to have grandchildren nearby! My daughter-in-law was due to give birth after Rosh Hashana. Come Yom Kippur, she had not yet given birth. They were not comfortable staying home. Of course, we said they should move in with us for Yom Kippur. My son would be in shul, and I could watch over her and occupy the two little grandkids while his wife was fasting and weak.
When all seemed settled on Yom Kippur morning, I checked if I could run to shul for a bit. Maybe I could make it for Kedusha of Mussaf. There was no time to say Shemoneh Esrei at home so I would need to catch up with Mussaf Shemoneh Esrei at shul, too.
When I arrived at shul, it was completely silent and I saw that everyone was in midst of the silent Shemoneh Esrei. I know it’s a long one – did they just start, were they almost done? If I started my Shemoneh Esrei then, and they were almost done, I’d be in the midst of my Shemoneh Esrei when they got to kedushah and would not be able to answer. But I began. As I completed my first paragraph, I heard the chazzan begin the repetition. I quickly realized I would be there for a while – that I would miss kedushah – and I might as well focus, concentrate, and even add the detailed Viduy at the back of the machzor.
I lost track of time and my surroundings. I worked on that Shemoneh Esrei with all the proper focus I could muster. I finished after some time, drained, and settled myself to figuring out what the chazzan was up to. I looked over at my neighbor for the page number. After all, I am pretty unfamiliar with most of these tefillos. I turned the page, and we began… Kedusha of Mussaf! I was overwhelmed by this unbelievable, amazing gift from Hashem.
This piece was written leilui nishmas Shmuel Yehuda ben Chanoch Dov, whose yahrzeit was on Rosh Chodesh Elul, 30 Av.