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High Holy Days

Seeking Anew

Rabbi Avi Schulman searches for the right prayers, poems, reflections, and words to embrace, inspire, and uplift his congregation during the High Holy Days.

I never thought this would happen again.

Five years ago, after my congregation received the newly published Mishkan HaNefesh, I made it my mission to carefully evaluate every page to determine what prayers, songs, and meditations would speak to the souls of my congregants. I relished evaluating the exquisite reflections and poems and marveled at the stirring interpretations and commentaries.

This appraisal process was mostly exhilarating thought I admit at times it also was exhausting. Such a bounty in the machzor required discernment in selecting elements for each service that would be elevating and inspiring. 

Once I finally determined the scope of every Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur service, I unexpectedly felt sad. I thought I would never again have the opportunity to begin the High Holy Days with such an open mind and spirit.

Such has been the case for the Yamim Noraim for the past four years. Sure, I tinkered with the order of prayers; pruning some readings and changing some melodies, but the scope of each service was largely unchanged.

Not this year. Not with the pandemic and the impossibility of gathering in our sanctuary. Not with livestreaming and the necessity of reimagining every aspect of the High Holy Days 

The themes for the Days of Awe are timeless: celebration, self-examination, repentance, forgiveness, transformation, and renewal. But we are living in a time of pervasive anxiety and uncertainty about our present and future.

So, just like in 2015, I am compelled to start fresh. I am putting aside my well-used copies of Mishkan HaNefesh and looking only at an unmarked machzor; searching again for the prayers, poems, and reflections that will embrace and uplift my congregation.

Despite the pandemic, and in spite of the effort it takes to reimagine our High Holy Day services, I am thankful for this opportunity. For in beginning anew, I become a seeker once again. I have trust that the rich expressions of spiritual yearning in Mishkan HaNefesh will guide the hearts of my congregants. 

I am strengthened by Larry Hoffman’s exhortation in a June webinar for our rabbinic chevrah to have faith in ourselves; to have confidence in our ability to seize this moment and create meaning for those we serve. To which I say: Amen!  Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik!    


5781 will be Avi Schulman’s fortieth year leading High Holy Day services.  He is the rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, California.

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