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By Jessica Tobacman
Common birthday gifts include standard prayers sung to melodies old and new, and foods that are as old as our great-grandparents with tweaks as young as the babies celebrating this holiday for the first time.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we have a chance to step back and look more closely at the path before us.
When I was growing up, I’d sit down to a holiday dinner, which included brisket and tsimmes, with my parents and two brothers. Now a cantorial soloist with little time to spare on the evening Rosh Hashanah begins, I’m grateful for the Wendy’s burgers my husband buys so we can sit down together, albeit briefly, and remind ourselves that the holiday isn’t just about getting to services with a few minutes to spare. Instead, he reminds us both that family time is integral to the High Holidays. I’m fortunate that my husband, who isn’t Jewish, almost always attends the services I lead, during which he pores over the English translations of the Torah and Haftarah portions and reads aloud with the congregation when they pray in English. These may seem like small actions within the larger context of a service or Judaism itself, but he helps fit the vital pieces of family, community and prayer into a much larger Jewish puzzle.
My parents set the precedent early on in my childhood that the secular New Year would always begin with a family dinner before any other non-family plans came into play. After dinner all bets were off, as the focus tended to be on where you were, and with whom, when the clock struck 12.
For the Jewish New Year, however, the holiday is always more of a kaleidoscope as you twist the end and see diamonds filled with families praying and singing together in communal services.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are arguably the two most important yearly holidays on the Jewish calendar. While the name of the first holiday translates to “head (rosh) of the year (hashanah),” the Day of Atonement is also about the “rosh.” It calls for paying attention to it in a different way, as we eat only in a spiritual sense, fasting for what amounts to about 25 hours.
One of the goals of the long fast is to attain spiritual clarity as a group by taking a break from the material world. Another is to build a sense of community as each of us pulls away from the rest of the world and toward Jewish worship simultaneously, for a common cause.
Judaism tells us to fast on Yom Kippur, unless you’re very young, pregnant, elderly or have a medical condition. Indeed, we refrain from eating as a community. In certain prayers, like “Sh’ma Koleinu,” the plural ending of “nu” is used to show how Jews take responsibility for one another and how important community is. The Jewish people have been persecuted and driven out from the lands they have inhabited on many occasions, including the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. So it’s no wonder we’ve got a bit of a community mentality, despite the pretty accurate idea that if there are two Jews in a room, they generally have three opinions.
The number “three” is a lamppost lighting the way forward during the High Holy Days: To be inscribed in the Book of Life, we need to repent, pray and perform good deeds, as the prayer “U’t’shuvah” states.
The good thing about the High Holidays is there are plenty of opportunities to do all three. Congregations often have food drives, where bringing nonperishable items to services as donations is commonplace. Doing tefillah (prayer) is the modern substitute for sacrifices and is integral to High Holy Day services. And performing t’shuvah (repentance) is a huge reason we go to synagogue in the first place.
Recently, I started the practice of writing gratitude emails, thanking the people in my life for their good deeds. Each message evokes a positive sense of the relationship, bringing it back to ground zero if something has gone awry in the past or if we simply need a fresh start with the new year coming. During this time of year, I suggest combining the idea of gratitude emails with one of sending messages asking for forgiveness. It has the potential to reorganize your life and your relationships so you have a better sense of how to move forward as we start the year 5777.
If nothing else, it’s a great time to reach out to those you care about and reconnect during this potentially sweet, nostalgic time of year. It might be time for a reboot, or simply a chance to celebrate the beautiful world we live in.
To find out more about Jessica, visit her website at http://www.jessicaleestudio.com/.
By Jared David Berezin
Why am I an unaffiliated Jew? In many ways, I should want to join a congregation. I’m in my early 30s. I’ve had a bar mitzvah. I’ve traveled to Israel. I enjoy celebrating Jewish holidays, including Shabbat. Passover is my favorite time of the year, and my wife and I love hosting our annual interfaith-humanist-vegan seder with friends of many faiths. The central question of why I am not a member of a synagogue, and why I have no desire to join one, spawns more questions:
Many of us have read articles about shifting demographics, aging congregations, low service attendance and the increasing number of unaffiliated Jews. Many of these articles pit affiliation and unaffiliation against one another as competitors, with blame often irrationally ascribed to young Jews, especially those who fall in love with someone of another faith. These articles resemble conversations I’ve had over the years with older affiliated Jews, in which being young, Jewish and unaffiliated was treated as a temporary illness that would cure itself once the patient got married (to another Jew) or had children. What is often missing from these discussions is the spiritual value of being unaffiliated, and how creating Jewish moments outside of a synagogue can be meaningful and fulfilling.
My childhood experiences in a Reform synagogue convinced me that religion was something you learned and performed, whereas spirituality was something you felt and experienced in the secular world. The first crack in this logic occurred in college when I read the “Song of Songs.” Then I attended a few events sponsored by the campus Hillel group, enrolled in a Hebrew language course and delved into Kafka’s works. I began to associate Judaism not just with coldness and formality, but with intellectual curiosity and growth.
Years later I participated in a Birthright trip to Israel where music, nature, spontaneity, adventure, politics and Judaism intertwined. Judaism became bigger, complicated and more interesting. I was living at the time with my girlfriend (now my wife) who was raised Christian but has an aversion to all organized religion and rituals that tend to suppress individuality. So when I got home from Israel and was suddenly very excited about Judaism it freaked her out a little bit. But she could see that I was inspired, and so we began celebrating Shabbat together on Friday nights. We’d put out the challah, grape juice and candles, and I’d recite the prayers in Hebrew and English. But it all felt just as cold and empty as the rituals from my childhood; none of the vibrancy that I felt in Israel was there.
I began to wonder whether the missing ingredient was community. I drew up a list of about 15 Reform and Renewal congregations in the Boston area and visited one every Friday night. I mumbled along with the prayers and songs, but it wasn’t inspiring. The predictability of the services, together with the congregation’s passive reliance on their rabbis felt all too familiar. Although this familiarity provided sentimental comfort and a sense of belonging for me, since my girlfriend was not raised Jewish, nothing was familiar to her, and she didn’t share the sense of comfort that I felt for the objects, rituals and language. Going to these various congregations with an interfaith partner was immensely valuable for me, because it caused me to ask myself these questions:
After attending dozens of synagogues both familiar and alternative, I was frustrated with myself for not feeling satisfied. I asked a rabbi whom I had been meeting with if I should just pick a synagogue, stay for a while and hope that it eventually felt right. His memorable response: “Keep looking. When it comes to religion you should never settle; you should be inspired.”
My girlfriend encouraged me to try one more place, and to our surprise it seemed perfect for us. The community lived within its means, renting rather than owning a space, which lessened the financial burden on the congregants. There was spontaneous conversation and dancing during services. The rabbi was explicitly welcoming of every type of person, a strong supporter of lay participation and able to connect Jewish teachings and rituals to the reality we live in. We became members and joined the shul band, and a year later I was asked to join the board.
Although the congregation’s practices were very alternative and free-spirited, it turned out that the key decision-makers in the community were just as obsessed with preserving their own way of doing things as I had found at the more formal synagogues. Deviations from their norm were considered inappropriate and without value. It pained me to hear board members refer to non-members (and even new members) as “outsiders.” During one meeting, several board members decided that the purpose of services should always be to satisfy the congregants who have been there the longest, rather than engaging with younger generations. I soon felt like a distant member of a community built for others’ needs. I resigned from the board several months later and the following year we did not renew our membership.
Finding a Meaningful Practice
Being unaffiliated does not prevent someone from being Jewish. It took me a while, however, to understand that being unaffiliated also does not prevent someone from having meaningful Jewish experiences. My wife and I are finding inspiration by celebrating Jewish holidays in our own way, tweaking traditions and developing new ones that have emotional and intellectual meaning for us. Some work, some don’t. In addition to our annual seder we’ve started a Yom Kippur tradition with a fellow interfaith couple: a day of fasting, focused conversation, meditation and a nature walk. I’ve also officiated my maternal grandparents’ funerals. These experiences require self-reliance and effort, and that’s in large part what makes them so special.
As much as we enjoy our Jewish life outside synagogue walls, there are many things that congregations provide that a couple like us simply cannot: a place for communal prayer, access to rabbis steeped in knowledge and a support network. There is a beautiful timelessness in large groups of people gathering together in a single space.
While I’m not planning to join a congregation—my needs have changed—many Jews and interfaith families desire to find a community that fits their needs. For congregations looking to grow, rather than speak only to those already in the building (those who already understand the coded behavior and language, those who share the same expectations of a service experience), rabbis and their congregants could look around and notice who is not in the seats. Cultivating a community of explicit (rather than implicit) inclusiveness requires open, honest conversations among rabbis and congregants about their community’s core mission, the unintended consequences of existing cultural norms and the potential for change. Here are some questions that I think about, and that I hope unaffiliated and affiliated readers can ponder and help me better understand:
This blog post was reprinted with permission from Red Said What?
By Jennifer Reinharz
After Hurricane Sandy, roughly six weeks post Rosh Hashanah 2012, we temporarily moved into my in-laws’ apartment. The building is home to a number of observant Jewish families, my in-laws included.
Waiting in the laundry room, I noticed a grandma folding clothes while her four-ish year old twin grandchildren, a boy and girl played nearby.
“I’m going to sing a Rosh Hashanah song,” announced the light eyed little guy.
After he got a few lines into his song I said, “That’s a nice tune.”
“He’s a good singer,” Grandma replied.
“Yes. I haven’t heard that one before.”
Right then his sister whipped her auburn curls, looked me dead in the eye and declared, “That’s because you’re not Jewish.
“Watch what you say to people!” Grandma barked.
Watch what you teach her, I thought.
I bit my lip and explained, “The Rosh Hashanah song I know is different. It goes like this…”
I sang a few lines of my holiday ditty. Thankfully the dryer’s buzzer went off. I took my clothes, wished them a good day and left – fuming.
Why do I have to be Jewish to know a Rosh Hashanah song? Why did the girl assume I was different than she? We were in the laundry room, not synagogue and it wasn’t Shabbat. Could she really have drawn her conclusion simply because I was dressed less conservatively than her grandmother?
It wasn’t clear.
What was clear was this little girl had been taught either directly or indirectly to identify, judge, and draw a conclusion about a person based on one’s appearance relative to the other grown-ups in her life. As a Christian woman married to a Jewish man who takes pride in raising Jewish children, I felt offended and sad.
This week, my family will celebrate the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time of reflection and new beginnings. Whether you observe or not, perhaps it’s a good time for us to think about the symbolic gestures we feel bring us closer to God. Although seemingly benign when practiced with a similar group, the question remains;
Do these gestures create an unhealthy divide, particularly when our children form false and hurtful conclusions based on them?
When all is said and done, I personally don’t think God gives a rat’s ass about what clothes we wore, the food we ate, the holidays we observed, or how many times a day we prayed.
It is how we view and treat each other while we are here that matters.
But let’s be realistic; life is wonderfully diverse and so our lifestyles will vary and symbols sustain. So in an effort to close the gap, let’s be mindful about consistently teaching young people that all religious and cultural perspectives are valid and deserve respect.
Grandma, you and I may have different ways of approaching our day to day living, but my hope is that we embody the same values. With this New Year upon us, let’s show our children that when we look beyond the laundry room, we are all mishpacha.
Jennifer Reinharz writes for children; blogs for grown ups; is a teacher, CrossFitter and Mom. She is a 2015 BlogHer Voice of the Year and creator of the personal essay blog, Red said what? Her work has also appeared in Brain, Child, Mamalode and Club Mid. Visit her on Twitter and Facebook.