I felt guilty because I belong to a very small community that meets only for services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and its continuity relies on people turning up. Otoh, the community has evolved over the years with people moving away and new people joining every year. And they don't do it for me, they do it because it's important for them and they love the intimacy of a small community in someone's home. But I rsvped that we would be there and so I felt bad and I was too much of a coward to tell them that in the end I just didn't want to.
I love parts of the services that involve uplifting singing of tunes that I've known my whole life. And the feeling of that final 'kaddish' at the very end and the long blast of the shofar when everyone has been without food or drink for 25+ hours and it's all over, is an amazing feeling of togetherness and achievement.
But actually what did we achieve? For me the answer was that I lasted a whole day without sustenance and I managed to attend all the services throughout the day in full. Surely that's not what it's all about?
This year, after resisting it and distancing myself for a few years, I decided to follow my heart. In previous years I've had the excuse that DD gets bored and a bored DD prevents me from having any sort of meaningful prayer experience. But I had a place to leave her this year and anyway there are other children at the shul for her to go off and play with. Otoh, at almost nine, it's not a matter of finding her somewhere to be with other children to play with. She doesn't want to be out all day playing. For some of the time, yes, but she has things to do at home and she also needs her personal time.
I have a problem with orthodox prayer in that the women basically go to watch. I didn't always mind about this as it meant I had it easy. I never had to learn the prayers or worry about being called upon to do something I couldn't do or hadn't practised. In recent years, however, I have felt differently. Yes women are supposed to pray but as they are not counted in the minyan (the quorum) and they sit at the back or in a viewing gallery upstairs, they might as well stay at home. I have no problem with the men going to do their thing but I don't need to be there to watch them. In recent years many modern orthodox communities have made carefully considered gestures to give women more participation in the services. I appreciate that in Judaism it's extremely hard to make changes but. (Nothing else, just but.)
Of course there are gender-egalitarian services that I could go to. So let's examine the nature of the services. The prayers are all in a book and everyone has the same book. You start at the beginning and you read, chant, sing, follow silently, stand, sit, bow, face eastwards, and generally choreograph your way through to the end in unison with the whole congregation. It's all prescribed, there is a lot of repetition within each service, and you do the exact same thing every week or year depending on whether it's a weekly Shabbat or a yearly festival service.
At the end of each service I used to feel virtuous because I'd gone to shul and that was the 'good' thing to do. Nowadays I'm left with a feeling of, "I didn't get to say anything I wanted to say." You can try tuning out to do your own introspection but you sort of have to keep one ear tuned in so that you join in with choreography. If you just sit there it's considered rude. Or ignorant. Or, worse, blasphemous. In a large shul you can get away with sitting at the back in a corner and reading your own book. I know some people do this for parts of the service they consider less important. But guess what? I can read at home.
There are alternative services near me where they allot times in the service for private meditation and thought. This is nice because you get the community togetherness and time for your personal prayers. However, I decided to ditch the prescribed prayers altogether this year and explore my own relationship with God and atonement.
It's not about being less Jewish. It's about being more meaningfully Jewish. It's about having a direct relationship with God rather than going through the rabbis. I admire the rabbis for their learned knowledge of the Bible and the ancient laws, just as I admire doctors for their learned knowledge of medical science. Much as your doctor will advise you towards better health, the rabbis also teach us that we have freedom of choice. Ironically the orthodox rabbis then proclaim that if you choose to do it their way you will be rewarded for the good, but if you choose a different way, you are wrong. I'm just not on that page anymore.
This Yom Kippur I cut out the middleman and I spoke to God myself. I repented and atoned and I prayed for Israel and Jews everywhere and humanity in general. I sat on my balcony and thought deeply about a better approach to the year ahead and asked that I may be written in the Book of Life in order to carry through my good intentions. It was good.