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I have always loved Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They were among the few Jewish holidays I remember celebrating as a child, and I can still picture the Post-It notes my mom would put in the various dishes as she was setting up for Rosh Hashanah dinner to help her remember which kugel would go in which dish. I loved the first sweet taste of apples and challah dipped in honey for the new year, and sitting in that large hotel ballroom (where my synagogue held its High Holy Day services in order to accommodate the larger crowd) listening to our beloved rabbi declare after every song “this is my favorite one.”
And for Yom Kippur, my family (including all of the “cousins”—whether or not we were related) would gather to break the fast. I looked forward to these two holidays every year, less for their religious significance and more for the time spent together with family and community. When I moved out of my family home in college and in the years after, I continued many of these traditions and traveled home when possible to spend this joyous time with my family. And then last year, everything changed. I had twins two short months before Rosh Hashanah.
During a time when I would normally be booking airline tickets or menu planning or sermon writing, I was just trying to stay afloat, learning how to be a new mom of twins and a new rabbi, all on very little sleep. They were born on July 2 and we spent the Fourth of July in the hospital; our first holiday as a family passed without any mention. Those first two months were beyond difficult for me physically and emotionally. Every day felt like an eternity, but September crept up on us out of the blue and we had no idea what to do for the High Holy Days.
We arranged childcare for Rosh Hashanah morning service, and decided to switch off for Yom Kippur services. We also planned on switching off for the evening services: My husband would go to erev (the first night of) Rosh Hashanah and I would go to Kol Nidre (the first night of Yom Kippur). It was my first night alone with my babies, and it did not go well. My husband ended up leaving services early to come and help me with them, and by the next morning we were exhausted and in no mood to pray or celebrate with community. But we had a sitter and we went to services together, our first time alone together out of the house since the twins were born. I had to leave services twice in order to pump breastmilk and we ended up leaving before services were over to get home in time to relieve the sitter.
Am I glad I went? No. Did I have a fulfilling and joyful Rosh Hashanah last year? No. I tried so hard to recreate the experience I used to have, that I completely missed the point of the holiday. For Yom Kippur we decided to put the kids to bed and watch services live online. I fell asleep halfway through. My experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from last year left me disappointed, sad and lonely.
I vowed to make this year different. My twins are 14 months old now, I am away from them every day, I sleep seven hours a night and I can finally create the experience I want. So how is it that two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, my husband and I just decided what we are going to do?
We can’t follow the prescribed routine of spending all day in synagogue praying and singing and then fasting. So what can we do as a family? Should we leave our kids with the nanny and celebrate the holidays without them? Should we skip the adult services and only go to the kid’s service? Are they even old enough to “get” it?
These holidays are so important to me, but how can I honor my own need for celebration and introspection while also including my kids? Is it OK to be selfish on the High Holy Days?
I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but I am talking to other families about how they do it, and then trying some things out for my family. Part of the joy of the holidays is seeing it through my children’s eyes and that is the lens through which I am trying to view Rosh Hashanah this year. Yesterday my babies heard the shofar for the first time and were equally excited and afraid—the exact emotions that the sound of the shofar should evoke from all of us. We are planning on attending adult services together and bringing the kids to the tot service later in the day, but also being prepared for the fact that when you have kids, plans can change in an instant.
Rosh Hashanah is about celebrating a new year and sharing the sweetness with our family and friends. Yom Kippur is about looking deep within and finding areas for improvement in my own character to better myself, my family and the world around me. By reflecting on my experience of past High Holy Days, and adjusting this years’ experience I can better serve myself and my family, thus teaching my children the most important values I want to pass on to them. We are honoring past traditions and hoping to create some new ones together.
For those of you who are parents navigating the High Holy Days, check out our Celebrating the High Holy Days with Kids booklet and our Guide to the High Holy Days, including sections on family, school, activities and more.
It was 2:56 AM when I heard, “Mooooomy…I NEED you…” When I went into my 6-year-old’s room, feeling frustrated and annoyed, she looked right at me and said with a clear, unwavering voice, “It’s inappropriate when you tell other people that I don’t stay in my bed all night.” My heart skipped a beat. “You’re right,” I said. “Thank you for telling me how you feel. I am sorry I embarrassed you. I will not share personal information like that again.”
My child is forming a sense of self and her own reputation. She has self-worth and self-respect.
As I sit for hours in prayer this coming High Holiday season, I will pray that I can do a better job of finding my own personal outlets for my frustrations and angst. I will pray that I uplift my children. I will wonder how to offer encouragement that inspires rather than using mocking to urge behavioral shifts, which is demeaning. I will pledge to talk less and listen more. I will vow to yell less. I will marvel at the mother I am, the wife I try to be and the rabbi I hope I am. I will think about the kind of year I want it to be.
This year, I will challenge myself not to rush my children to move faster to get to an after-school activity which is supposed to be life enhancing for them. Rushing them and causing stress takes away from the reason we are doing of the activity in the first place. I will remind myself to be disciplined in my spending: to buy fewer toys and “stuff” and to declutter our house and our lives. (Physically getting rid of stuff is a major Passover theme, but a little spiritual fall soul cleansing is good, too.)
If you find yourself in communal prayer over Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, and you are bored, distracted, hungry or having trouble with all of the Hebrew or the images of God as King, think about the idea of “chet.” This is a word you will hear a lot in the liturgy. It is translated as sin and is an archer’s term for “missing the mark.” The High Holidays are a time to re-calibrate our aim. For sins against God, such as ignoring the Sabbath (a chance to rest and refresh, to re-prioritize, to reboot and connect to friends and family), God will forgive my trespass. But, for sins against others, I need to make amends. I need to do better.
As we all know, our children are our best mirrors. When our children tell us to put our phones down and when our children tell us we have embarrassed them, then it’s time to re-calibrate and aim again.
As the ethical teachings of our ancestors explains: “Ben Zoma said, ‘Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone,’ as it is said, ‘From all who would teach me, have I gained understanding.’”
You may have heard about a new program that we are starting up at InterfaithFamily/Bay Area called Meet Us at Synagogue (Shul)! The idea came from my experience with returning to Judaism after being disengaged for forty years. It was my chapter of wandering in the desert. One grand life experience pushed me to think about a spiritual return. It was on a trip to Israel where I discovered that in my heart, I missed so much from my Jewish history.
Returning was not easy, which is why I want to support others who may have a glimmer of aspiration to experience a Jewish Shabbat service in 2015. Today’s Judaism is miles away from what it was when I was a child and I love it.
What interests me is the question: What inspires someone to go to a Jewish Shabbat service, and if they do, what will they find?
If you are Jewish and have not been to a Shabbat service for a long time, or ever, it can be incredibly meaningful to connect with our spiritual and cultural roots. If you are not Jewish, and are partnered, related to or close to someone who is, going to a Shabbat service will show you more than you might think about that person’s heritage and it might bring you closer together too. In one short evening or morning, you can take a journey through the musical, spiritual, communal, culinary and ritual character of Judaism. In some synagogues, you may find quite a bit of Jewish historic memorabilia.
This is a journey that Jews and their loved ones all over the world can share. Sometimes on Shabbat, when I sing a prayer with the congregation, I think about all of the other people across the planet who are doing the same thing, something that has been happening for thousands of years. For me, the music, more than anything else, connects me to the divine and to the congregation. There is something about the Jewish musical key that lifts me up and brings me completely to the present moment. For others, Jewish or not, spending part of Shabbat in a congregation is an opportunity to see old friends, meet new and interesting people, have a little nosh (food), and take time out from the rat race.
Shabbat services are not all the same. In the Bay Area, we have organizations that are reinventing Judaism in exciting ways. Some are highly inclusive of ancient traditions and others are bringing a spiritual creativity to Shabbat that is in keeping with California’s trend-setting culture. Services are held indoors in traditional and non-traditional spaces, outdoors in parks, farms and the wilderness. One can find a service that is held early or late, with music or without and most use prayer books that are filled with inspiring and inclusive language. Shabbat can also be a transformative musical experience, whether it be rock, chanting and drums, sing along, dancing or meditation. It is all here in the Bay Area, waiting to be discovered!
I met two menshes on benches the Friday of Thanksgiving. You may now have the image of the Mensch on the Bench Hanukkah toy, but unlike this stuffed elf counterpart, these were true mensches.
One of the rules for this toy is that a “true mensch is one who puts smiles on other peoples’ faces.” The word mensch is Yiddish for human being. It means to be a true human; to live up to the depths of kindness, generosity, integrity and love that a human can muster. The two mensches I met put a smile on my face for sure.
My parents moved to Philadelphia over the summer from Boston to be near my youngest brother and his family. They joined Congregation Rodef Shalom which is near where they live. They joined because they had heard the synagogue was an architectural gem, which it is, that the clergy are accessible and warm, that the preaching and teaching is intellectually stimulating and that the worship is full of music and joy. As soon as they joined, another synagogue family called them and invited them out to dinner (which my parents were thrilled about since they don’t have any friends there yet). The synagogue staff greeted my parents at the door for several weeks after they moved to welcome them in and make sure they were getting acclimated. My parents were immediately swept off their feet with the ruach—the spirit—of the service. They kept telling me what a wonderful community this is. They love that each week there is a Shehecheyanu prayer sung after those in attendance share the good news that is happening in their lives.
My family and I were visiting for Thanksgiving and my parents were so excited and proud to take us to their new temple. Well, my 5 and 7-year-old are not well behaved in synagogue. You might be surprised considering my husband is a pulpit rabbi and they go to synagogue a lot. My children are high energy, antsy, loud and boisterous. They get thirsty and have to pee a lot during services which requires them to go in and out of the sanctuary. They whine. They get hungry. No matter how many little activities and small snacks I bring, we have not fully mastered the art of sitting respectfully in synagogue with a “calm body” as we like to say.
On this Friday night, they were exhausted which mellowed them a little. But, my youngest ate through the whole hour long service (I so appreciated that the service was one hour including a Torah reading and short sermon). This synagogue has a quiet room where you can hear the service but people can’t hear us. However, we braved the actual sanctuary because my parents wanted the kids to try to fully participate. Wouldn’t you know, they did (sort of). When the time came to share a Shehecheyanu moment, my 5-year-old raised his hand for the microphone and said, “I am visiting my grandma and papa” which just made my parents kvell (swell with pride) and everyone in the community ooh and ahh with his cuteness.
During the Lecha Dodi prayer, they form a dancing chain and my children joined right in! The Rabbi made sure to welcome us specifically at the start of the service as well and he called my children up for the honor of helping to undress the Torah. Actively participating definitely helps one stay engaged, no matter how old you are. But, my kids were not perfect during that hour by any stretch of the imagination. There was a trail of popcorn under our seats to prove it.
After the service the two women sitting right behind us (on actual pews/benches) said, “Your children were such a delight. We loved their energy. We loved their dancing. They are so beautiful. What a joy to have you visiting.” They didn’t say, “Next time, you could try the Quiet Room.” Their response made me smile. It warmed my heart. It took a load off. I had been wondering how annoyed they would be sitting right behind us. It made me want to come back again. I told you I met two menshes on benches! They embodied what it means to be gracious, welcoming and empathetic.
This year on Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue tried something new. All of the kids were invited onto the bima to witness the blowing of the shofar. It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces while the shofar sounded. My daughter even jumped back a little at the sound initially. It was a sight to behold on many levels. First, I loved seeing all of the kids at the synagogue. Most of them were in awe of the Torahs, the Rabbi and the shofar. Second, when I spoke to my son later, he said he never realized that there were that many people at the synagogue. He seemed impressed that there were that many people observing the holidays. Since he attends a school with very few Jewish kids, he felt excited that “he wasn’t the only one” observing the holiday. Third, the Rabbi said that the twisting shape of the shofar is like life – there are ups and downs, twists and turns that keep going on a unique journey. Again, watching the kids comprehend this concept was gratifying.
I know that for a long time, synagogues would keep the kids in a different area of the building during services so they didn’t disrupt the adults and the prayers (I suspect the parents liked having a “break” from the kids, too). Some congregations create a group that prays and another group that discusses. There may be another group for the teenagers and another group for the toddlers. Unfortunately, some kids grow up thinking that synagogue is just for kids. I think that this is all fine and good but at some point, we should all be together.
I learn so much from the whole community: from my kids, from my friend’s 92- year-old-grandmother, and from the pleasant gentleman two rows back with a great smile. Our kids should see what their future looks like and we should look back on our childhood with wonderful memories. The good memories are what keep us going so we can manage the twists and turns of life.
Many people are part of the community of their neighborhood, preschool, elementary school, gym or office. I find that these communities are wonderful but fleeting; the people move, the kids grow up, the gym down the street offers a better deal or people get new jobs. The Jewish community is a little different on the holidays. No one has to send out an invitation, but lots of people show up to celebrate the holiday. We see families grow up and evolve. A hug from an old friend is commonplace. We may hear a tune that reminds us of a relative or humorous incident from childhood.
I know that many communities have a Jewish Community Center (JCC) which is a great place to find community. While I am not a member of a JCC, I find that my Jewish community IS my center. It is the most consistent presence in my life besides family. I don’t love everyone there but I enjoy a little something of everyone, young and old. Best of all, we all are collecting and reliving some very positive memories.
As kids, we attended services with the adults since child-friendly services hadn’t been invented yet. It was long. Really long. Now I lead services and understand why there is so much liturgy. But as teenagers it was tough to sit attentively for that long. My sister always brought a book with her to synagogue. But it wasn’t to pass the time, and it was not just any book. She felt that during the High Holy Days, we should be exploring the depths of religious and philosophical literature about the meaning of life. It was usually someone like Buber, Frankl, Hegel or Heidegger.
She loved finding the same themes they wrote about in the prayer book, and every now and then she would point out to me some kernel of wisdom she’d found or question that came up for her in one book or the other and we would ponder that in whispers for a while. What are we here for? Is there such a thing as a soul? What happens when we die and what makes us so afraid of it? She understood the true meaning of the season: to contemplate life, mortality and purpose. As I grew up, I started to see Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur as Judaism’s personal therapy session. When do we to put aside entire days to just focus on ourselves and the meaning of life?
My sister taught me that the Holy Days are about asking the big questions of life and death. Those questions are imbedded in our liturgy, but it can be hard to tease them out. These days, there are new prayer books that contain insightful meditations and commentary on each page. If you go to services, allow your eyes to wander all over the page, and allow your mind to wander where it needs to go. Things that come up while sitting in services are probably coming up for a good reason, and are pointing you to the work you need to do this year. If you don’t attend services, there are lots of ways to get into the High Holy Day spirit.
One Jewish organization, Reboot, has a great suggestion for digging deeply. It is called 10Q, for “ten questions.” There are ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that are meant as a time to reflect on the year past and the year to come. 10Q puts a modern twist on this tradition and asks you (digitally) a big question every day during that period about your life plans, goals, relationships and how you relate to world events of the day. People of any background can use them to delve deeply with their broad, spiritual questions. And in case the craziness of the intervening year causes you to forget what matters most to you, they will send you your responses before Rosh Hashanah of 2015.
However you mark the days of reflection coming up, try to not let them just go by. Whether you spend these days in nature, in synagogue, at home or work, take some time to ask yourself the big questions.
This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.
On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.
As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.
In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koof daled shin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.
Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.