My husband, 10-year-old daughter and I recently attended a food-packing tzedakah program at a nearby synagogue. It was scheduled for 10 a.m., which gave us an hour to work before we had to leave for Hope’s soccer game.
But it was only at 10:50 that things finally got rolling, which gave us just 10 minutes to pack food. As they began to assign tasks, the program organizers laughed off the lateness, attributing it to “Jewish time” or, as it’s sometimes called, “Jewish Standard Time,” or JST.
It’s time to stop being late, fellow Jews — and what better time to arrive on time than the upcoming High Holidays?
I find the idea of Jewish time embarrassing and offensive. It’s arrogant to think we can “get away” with being late, not only among ourselves but in relation to everyone else. Is there Baptist time? Catholic time? Hindu time? Not that I know of.
And would we let people from these groups “off the hook” for chronic lateness? I doubt it. At the very least it would be noted as a flaw. Then why should we expect that for ourselves? There are so many stereotypes about Jews as it is, why add an unattractive one to our perceived persona?
Non-Jews already think the Jewish sense of time is weird. Why is Chanukah in late November one year (like this year) and mid December the next? Why do we have to add an extra “leap month” every so often?
And why, when your Episcopalian neighbor attends your daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, does it start, finally, at 10:20 a.m. rather than at 10, when it was called for?
Where does our lateness come from? Has our tardiness become something we accept because we’re used to waiting — for the Messiah, maybe?
We need to take ourselves and our responsibilities more seriously. Arriving late shows a lackadaisical attitude toward the activity, right from the get-go. Jews who make sure they’re at the stadium to see batting practice and the first pitch, or faithfully arrive at the theater before the curtain rises, need to transfer that commitment to being on time to our Jewish activities, especially communal ones such as praying.
Some Jews think “Jewish time” is a cute concept, or funny, and they laugh off the 10- or 15-minute delays. But it’s not cute or funny; it’s a condescending, almost passive-aggressive stance, basically saying that you, the person or group that has to wait, is less important than I, the one who’s late, because my time matters more.
Sure, there are a couple of Jewish events that even the tardiest among us make sure to get to on time, such as the Kol Nidre service or a funeral. But why don’t we have enough respect for ourselves and for other Jewish occasions — Shabbat services, a challah-baking workshop, even a blind date from J-date — to get where we’re supposed to be on time? “Fashionably late” should be expunged from our modern Jewish experience for being as out of fashion as hoop skirts or spats.
There are, of course, things that cause lateness that can’t be helped, such as bad traffic, but if you know that your route to synagogue, for instance, tends to be heavily traveled at particular times, you might consider another route.
To my delight, my synagogue is punctual about starting services. Elliot Holin, rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, is a stickler about the time services start. If services are called for 8 p.m., that’s precisely when it starts. He explains, “When one prays with the community, I think a certain baseline civility is called for; not, we’ll pray when people arrive. OK, how many people? A minyan? No. Then how many? It’s easier to set a time and start than depending on who is there. Let’s have time be the determinant, not “who,” which sometimes turns to matters of status. In the synagogue everyone is equal. Be on time; if not, merge into the stream and join us where we are.”
So if you need to, wear a watch that you’ve set 15 minutes early, so you won’t be late. Remember that punctuality is generally regarded as a positive trait, which tells as much about you — about us — as the shoes you wear or the phone you use. Don’t forget that what you do, as an individual Jew, may be understood as what all Jews do.
We, the Chosen People, should make better choices, and this time of year is the perfect time to commit to a new behavior. Start this new year by getting to services on time.
Janet Ruth Falon is a writer and writing teacher living in Elkins Park.