Categories
High Holy Days

In the Middle of the Night: A High Holy Day Clergy COVID-19 Confession

Can I be honest? In these past months, I have lost more sleep, wrestled with more anxiety, and endured new levels of second-guessing myself, all because the intersection of High Holy Days and the coronavirus pandemic has upended finely honed planning and practices. Where once many of my fellow rabbis and I felt pressure over sermon writing, now, like so many colleagues around the world, we are stressing out over megabytes needed and minutes to cut, and platforms to stream on, and prayers to preserve. And then one late night, this confession came forth. Perhaps it speaks of your truth too:

In the Middle of the Night:
A High Holy Day Clergy COVID-19 Confession

In the middle of the night 
I am feeling the fright
About how to do this right—
My High Holy Days COVID-19 rewrite

Can I be an inspiration?
Will I shine a comforting light?
Will the internet hold up
Providing sufficient megabytes?

Are my kavannot kosher?
Are my stories too trite?
Should we prerecord or livestream
At the temple or offsite

What passions can I convey
From my living room as I sit tight?
What comfort can I bring
Streaming from a distance satellite?

Will I uplift enough souls
To make my community unite?
Will my sermons make them think
Or will they just cause a dogfight?

Can my services really stem
The feared membership flight?
Will my appeal really raise Tzedakah
From each philanthropic socialite?

Did we think it all through
Was our preparation airtight?
Did I fail to strategically plan
Without sufficient foresight?

Will I fall to the virus
The thermometer’s rising Fahrenheit?
Or from something unexpectedly random
Like a West Nile virus mosquito bite?

Have I already ruined Yom Kippur
Like a wayward satellite? 
Will I watch it come crashing down 
Like a fiery meteorite?

Will I later kick myself
With 2020’s hindsight
After I quickly crash and burn-
Oy, I’m getting stage fright

Yes, I’m trying for homeostasis 
To be patient and polite
But my heart’s being attacked
By anxiety’s lymphocyte

So as I ride the rollercoaster
Like a frightened suburbanite
I’m trying to discern the future 
Like a soon-to-be extinct Canaanite

Worrying, when we gather together 
For Rosh Hashanah’s first candlelight
Will my rabbinate already be over
Before I step into the limelight

Like all my clergy friends
I’m trying to breath through the fright
Though the pressure’s overwhelming
For us clerical leading lights

I know our people have the desire 
And a massive spiritual appetite 
So I wonder what else can I bring
During this moment of irreligious blight

What else can I offer
That will make my community delight?
Oy, I’d better calm down
So I don’t seem so uptight

And I’d better get some sleep
Hours after midnight
So I can get up and get working
At the first morning’s light

Just one more thought…
What if… 

My sermons are ready
And the chanting seems right
And the Torah’s all rolled 
And my machzor’s in sight
Will it all be for naught
Even if I get it all right
Because I simply forgot to send
The congregational Zoom invite?

Anxiety, I hate you
But at least you’re my constant friend
I’ll see you every night
Until these High Holy Days end.


Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday Machzor Technology

Beyond the Service: Five (More) Things to Consider for Online High Holy Days

A few years ago, in the midst of chemotherapy treatments, I could not attend High Holy Day services at my synagogue. My family attended as usual, and I stayed home, turned on the computer, and watched the livestream. It gave me the perspective to say with confidence that streaming would never be a satisfactory replacement for in-person services. With High Holy Days 5781 going all or mostly online in most communities, here are five things I had to figure out for myself; addressing them will make a huge difference for our communities this fall.

  1. Distractions. In our own sanctuaries, we make an announcement or put in our handouts a reminder to silence cell phones, and the peer pressure of being in a theater-like setting is enough for most people to comply. But at home, we are asking people to be on the very screens that we want them to avoid in synagogue. More than that, unlike the online Shabbat services we’ve been doing for months now, High Holy Day services aren’t just for the most dedicated among us. Rosh HaShanah falling on a weekend will help limit work distractions, but how many people will try to stream Yom Kippur services while also working from home and, perhaps, homeschooling their children? Consider a reminder—and a how-to—not just on connecting to the livestream, but on turning off distracting notifications: news apps, emails, text messages, and more, that will drag them away from the service mentally if not physically.

  2. Physical machzor. Visual T’filah is beautiful; it has been a lifesaver, and I wish it had been part of the livestream in the year I was home. I was lucky to have my own machzor on the shelf; I’m not sure I would have continued streaming without it. But the High Holy Days are about personal reflection; Mishkan HaNefesh allows eyes to wander and enhances individual prayer in the midst of community prayer. During a choral piece, how many of our congregants watch the cantor or choir the whole time, and how many are reading something else on the page? Our machzor encourages reflection and prayer, and especially in a year that is already strange, anything we can do to enrich that is important. If our congregants don’t already own a machzor, we should be thinking about how to get a copy into their hands.

  3. Busy hands. I’m a doodler and a fidgeter. In the sanctuary, the machzor gives me something to hold onto. But when streaming services, the machzor sits on a table in front of me, so my hands are empty. I do not participate as fully as I do when I’m in the sanctuary. People will be tempted to pick up their phones to play a game, or to read a nearby magazine, or to fold laundry. What could we encourage people to do instead? I did hand lettering during the High Holy Days I was streaming, creating artwork out of words from the machzor. I copied out, by hand, readings or lines I found especially meaningful. I wrote prayers. What can we give to our congregants to keep them in the mental space of the service, when they are surrounded by a million other things they could be doing?

  4. Kids and others. In the year I stayed home, during the daytime services, my husband took our children to the synagogue. For the evening services, I was home with the kids while he went to synagogue. Even though the kids (then three and almost one) were in bed when the services began, I missed a lot until they (eventually) fell asleep. I could not have done it during the day when they were up. How can we support families with young children at home, without the ubiquitous babysitting or children’s programming? While some congregations might simultaneously stream children’s programming, many won’t be able to. What resources can we provide in order to entertain, educate, and spiritually nourish children so that their parents can focus and pray? What resources can we provide to parents to empower them to get their kids connected and engaged?

  5. Connection. The High Holy Days are about connecting with God, but they’re also about connecting with other people and with clergy. I missed this part the most, in my streaming year, and we’re all feeling it now. Maybe we want to encourage congregants to (virtually) chat with each other during services. Maybe we can have someone periodically post pre-written discussion questions—or questions about the sermon—during the service. Maybe we can add High Holy Day programming that isn’t services, like small-group Tashlich (one of few things I attended in-person that year), or physically distant picnics, or apple picking. Maybe we’re making more phone calls than usual, and having board members call the congregation not just to say “shanah tovah,” but to really work on connecting, encourage religious school classes and other auxiliary groups to hold themed hangouts, or having breakout group receptions or discussions during or after the service.

It’s really hard to feel connected at a time when we’re used to being with our biggest crowds, and instead, we’re alone in a room. I won’t pretend it was fun when I did it a few years ago, but working together and planning ahead, the experience could be a new way to engage, reflect, and pray together.


Rabbi Jessica Barolsky lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her family, where she is a member of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. She is grateful that CEEBJ has been livestreaming services for many years.

Categories
High Holy Days

Deeds, Not Fasting

In Talmudic times of trouble, tractate Taanit tells how the Jewish community needs to move forward:

The elder among them says words of admonition, “People! It does not say of the citizens of Nineveh that God say their sackcloth and their fasting, but rather: God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil ways.”

Our High Holy Days are a time for turning.  And we know that it is neither our fasting nor our penitence that matters, but how we change our daily behavior, our deeds.  What is true for individuals is true for nations: the entire citizenry of Nineveh needed to turn from the improper path they walked together.  We know the ways in which our own nation walks are sometimes stepped in sin; our High Holy Days come to admonish us to find better pathways to the future.

This past August, we marked two sad national commemorations.  2019 marked a century since America plunged into its Red Summer, a season of violence in which white supremacists in over 36 cities (and many rural areas) unleased their fury on  black communities, killing hundreds of human beings, injuring countless others, burning many black neighborhoods to the ground.  August 18 of this year also marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on America’s shores.  Our summer has forced us to confront the evil ways of racial injustice that have been a part of our country since its inception.

This past August also witnessed fifty Reform Rabbis stepping forward, learning what we could do to help repair this historic and painful breach.

We travelled together to Montgomery, Alabama.   The destination was the new Legacy Museum and Memorial, build by the Equal Justice Institute to teach our nation about the direct racist trajectory from slavery through Jim Crow to Mass Incarceration.  Bryan Stevenson, the heroic founder of EJI, delivered a powerful keynote at our Cincinnati convention that called us to get proximate to this narrative, to the history, and to the lived experience of others.  Of course, Stevenson called us to learn the lessons so we might take action.  Over 50 CCAR colleagues answer Stevenson’s call for three powerful days this summer.

What did we learn? To begin with, we saw how deeply structures of injustice are built into our American way.  For many of us who had grown up proudly counting important pieces of civil rights legislation passed in the heyday of the Movement, we realized that those laws guaranteeing equal protection and equal opportunity never took their full effect.  Inequalities along racial lines are still starkly visible whether looking at the poverty line or at the distribution of prison sentences.  We learned that while individuals might consider themselves “colorblind,” our system still not only accounts for the color of one’s skin, but—according to overwhelming data and research—also disproportionally disserves people the darker their pigmentation. We learned that in an America that has always baked racism into the system, it is not enough to say, “Well, I’m not a racist.”  In a system as consistently oppressive as ours, we must actively become anti-racist.

Being anti-racist racist means many things.  First and foremost, being  anti-racist means we cannot be passive.  Being anti-racist it means actively learning about the depths of American racism, and then actively working to end our racially unjust system.  Being anti-racist means travelling outside our comfort zones to get proximate to difficult truths.  Being anti-racist means looking at the benefits we have unjustly won from the American system, and then being willing to sacrifice those most ill-gotten gains.  Being anti-racist means we have a whole lot of work to do, not just in our words, but in our deeds.

On the very day that marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on America’s shores, Rabbi Rachel Mikvah taught us about the difficult of dismantling racism.  The Talmud questions the extent to which we need to return objects that were stolen.  The example is brought of a stolen log that has been used—for decades—as the structural support for a grand palace.  Our Rabbis of blessed memory remind us that that stolen beam needs to be returned, even if it mean taking apart the palace, brick by brick. 

We learned this lesson in the cradle of the Confederacy, just hundreds of feet from the Confederate White House.  Yet we know that the other White House, the one that stands as symbol to many of America’s greatness, was built by enslaved individuals.  The labor that built the White House in Washington, D.C., was stolen.  The White House, therefore, symbolizes America in a different way: a structure rooted in injustice whose foundations must be rebuilt, and that which was stolen, returned.  That return, in Hebrew so appropriate for this Holy season called teshuvah, goes by many names we should not be afraid to say in English: repayment, restoration, reparations.

It is not enough that we learn about, that we talk about, that we write about these injustices of old that continue through to today.  Fasting and lament have their place, but they will move the Divine no more than they will change society.  We need a national time not just of truth and reconciliation, but of restoration and reparations.  Our High Holy Days call us to turn from our evil ways.  It is time for all of us to act.  It is time for all of us to help turn our nation from its inarguably racist path towards a future of true liberty and justice for all.


Rabbi Seth M. Limmer serves as Senior Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and also as a Member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.  Together with Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, he is editor of
Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Justice, available from CCAR Press.

Categories
High Holy Days

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die

Who shall live and who shall die…
Who shall perish by water and who by fire…

The Unetaneh Tokef – Rosh Hashanah’s central prayer – is truly terrifying and disturbing.  It tells us that next year at this time, some of us will be gone via a series of dreadful possibilities: floods, fires, illnesses and the like. God issues this decree from high above, sitting on a throne of judgement. Our behavior determines our fate according to the biblical and rabbinic system of reward and punishment. Not only does the prayer arouse people’s fear of dying, it adds a layer of blame and shame, suggesting that our illnesses and losses are deserved and self-inflicted. For this reason, I used to much prefer the interpretive versions by Jack Riemer and Stanley Rabinowitz. They transform the prayer into a psychological reckoning. For example, rather than “Who shall live and who shall die,” Rabinowitz’s version offers “Who shall be truly alive, and who shall merely exist.[1]

These interpretive efforts are much more in line with my theology. I do not believe in the kind of God who metes out our fate according to strict rules of justice. Indeed, I am not even certain the Bible believes in that kind of God. For example, the book of Job is a powerful challenge to that theology. As the story goes, Job is righteous and good, he loves and praises God even when everything is taken from him. However, Job suffers unfairly, not because he deserves it, but because God has made a bet with Ha-Satan, the Prosecuting Angel. Presumably, the rabbis included Job in the Bible because they realized that the world does not work like clockwork — and neither does God.

So it is no doubt surprising that I have come to value the prayer in its original. I appreciate it because it lends itself to multiple interpretations. If you believe in reward and punishment, you can read the prayer that way. If you prefer a psychological understanding of how our attitude affects our lives, that is an option. And the prayer gives expression to a reality we are forced to face, often regardless of our intentions and our behavior: the fact that some of us won’t be here next year or will be struck by heartache. Some will die of old age; some will become ill; some will lose homes to fires; some will lose loved ones to floods. These are life events over which we have limited control. And God is not necessarily responsible for them.

The question we must really ask is: How will we respond? The concluding verse of the Unetaneh Tokef suggests: U’t’shuvah, u’filah, u’tzedakah, ma-avirin et roa ha-gezera, “Repentance (return), prayer, and righteousness will mitigate the harshness of the decree.” A beautiful way to understand how this works is offered by Rabbi Helen Plotkin:

Teshuvah—repentence (sic), response, return—is the ability to move, to change course, to come back to center, to reconcile.

Tefillah—prayer—is the ability to let the world take your breath away, to hold onto and to articulate gratitude, hope, and awe.

Tzedakah—righteousness—is the ability to pursue justice and to act from a fountain of generosity.[2]

If we follow these practices, our lives will be richer and more rewarding, despite tragedies and setbacks. Wishing you all a shanah tovah u’metukah – a happy and sweet New Year.


Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, CA. She is also a member of the Reform movement of Judaism’s Commission on Social Action as well as on the Leadership Team of California’s Religious Action Center.


[1] Adapted, in David Teutsch, ed., Kol Haneshamah: Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, Elkins Park, PA: The Reconstructionist Press, 1999, p. 345,
[2] https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/142538/unetanah-tokef

Categories
High Holy Days

What We Do Matters and it is Good for the Soul

“The High Holy Days are upon us.  The High Holy Days are upon us!”  Shouts Paul Revere –stein.   Behold the miracle of the Almighty!  They are either early or late… but somehow never on time!  A miracle of Jewish time.  Or how we count Jewish time.   

We who live in two worlds.  Much of our life is spent in our secular universes. We earn a living. We raise a family. We tend to the every day challenges of life-health, bills, a hobby or two. And yet, there is another world.  A world which you to be as integrated into our life as the ubiquitous cell phones are today. As we peer addicted-ly at our phones and onto the world wide web for the answers to our everyday questions. Answers to riddles that come up? Who won the super bowl in 1986? (Answer: Chicago Bears). Who stared in the original Star Is Born? (Answer: Janet Gaynor and Frederic March.) The internet has become our new Torah.

But we know in our heart of hearts, it is soul less. 

We may be addicted to our selfies. But we are Jews, gosh darn it. And we must try, with all of our might and all of our soul to capture “Soul-fies.”  

What is it that captures our hearts and our souls? What is important. We can name a lot of things. But the proof in part of the response is that we are here are we not because we wish to take a “soul-fie.”  Because we know deep down that the answers to life’s questions can not all be found on the world wide web, they are found in the endless learning of Torah, and the eternal values of our people.

Our torah portion, Ki Tavo is a harsh one. Full of warnings of terrible things…illness, famine, poverty…evils that will befall the Israelites if they abandon God’s commandments.

Like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, our desire to do good things, seemed to be snatched from us and we fall on our “tuchus.”   Like a bad diet we quit way too early at the first temptation of celestial chocolate.   

No one said reaching the promised land would be easy.   

No one said running a Temple would be easy.    

It is not.  It is easy to take short cuts.  It is easy to take a short view.   It is much harder to take the long view.  To understand the importance of laying the foundation for a strong board; a vibrant Temple; nurturing a culture of giving;   It is all too easy to take for granted that which others would be amazed at programmatically.  To live in fear of the unknown– money, membership, keeping the “Israelites” happy.

Moses endured it for 40 years.  Most of you have a two year term or four.   And the burden is sometimes heavy.  Because we aim to please.  And we know deep down it is important.  For our community.  And yes, dare I say it, for our souls.   

We are here not just because we care.  We do.  Not just because we have a fiduciary responsibility to secure the integrity of the Temple.  We do.  We are here because we want to be part of a process that truly matters.  It matters what we decide.  It matters to us, to our community, and to the future of our faith. 

OMG.  When you put it that way rabbi, I am not sure that’s really what I wanted to sign up for!  

And yet. We all did. Because unlike a business which produces a specific product.  We are a sacred community and everyone here are levites in service to God. And our product is not a widget.  Or a better mouse trap.  Or a car.  Or a cell phone.  Our product, pardon the term, is producing Jews.   

And we understand that this matters. It matters to us.  It matters to the world.  It matters to all that we stand for deep down. And when we come here to take our “soulfies” we hope to capture now and always the sacred, special and awesomeness of this task.  

And yes, Dear God, that is what we have signed up for.   And it ain’t easy.   But this task is all of ours.   And it does both drain, and fill our souls.  

Both can be true. May this be our blessing.  Indeed, may this be our blessing.  Amen.


Rabbi Sanford Akselrad serves Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada. Rabbi Akselrad wishes to thank Rabbi Naomi Levy for her inspiration on the concept of “soul-fies.” 

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Going Beyond the Shanah Tovah Email

I miss Rosh Hashanah cards.  They used to begin arriving in my mail box about three weeks before Rosh Hashanah.  Sometimes I knew I was one name on a list of thousands.  Other cards were a message from a great aunt or a member of my community who wanted to tell me something personal.  I always felt a bit ashamed of this enjoyment because I have never sent cards at the New Year.  To have one more thing to do, one more list to compile, seemed way beyond my practical and emotional capacity at this time of year.   But I looked forward to receiving them, and then hanging them as the major form of decoration in the Sukkah.

Now I receive New Year’s greetings in the form of emails.  I deeply appreciate that emails are significantly better for the very world whose creation we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah.  Still, receiving a greeting in an email has a different flavor.   It lacks the distinctive signature, the feel and texture of the paper, the option to place it where it can be seen as a small connection to the broader circle of Jews ushering in a New Year. An email is transient and ephemeral, gone when the delete button is pushed.  In an in-box that is too often overflowing, somehow the greeting becomes just one more thing to click on, one more item to get through.

I know that my feeling is not about cards vs. email.  It’s about connection.  While there is shared commiseration on Facebook about sermons not yet written and the challenge of finding just the right story, for those who are leading services there is an element of loneliness in the work we do this time of year.  The decision about what our particular community needs to hear from the pulpit rests with each individual rabbi.  Are there consequences in my particular location and community if I say something that may be controversial or unpopular?   Sitting in front of a blinking cursor, an open machzor is a solitary task.

We hold personal burdens as well, burdens that are not so easy to talk about with each other.  Is my rabbinic leadership being evaluated based on my Kol Nidrei sermon or the perceived ‘quality’ of the worship?  Is my authenticity lessened when I preach about spiritual preparation and can’t seem to make the time for my own Elul introspection?   What do I do with the guilt I carry about the impact this time of year has on my family?

We may face many of the same questions, but we do so in our own silos, by ourselves.  This need not be the case.  We know from you that you want to reach out to each other, to help and support, in a way that goes beyond the superficial email.  As a rabbinic community, we can live up to that intention.  Amidst the stress of the season, it’s a blessing to hear the voice of another rabbi – the rabbi you talked with at convention but haven’t spoken to since, the new colleague who came to town who you don’t really know yet, the classmate you haven’t seen in a year, a friend.  The nourishment that occurs of those moments of relationship is a way to prepare for the sacred days that lie ahead.  You can’t hang a phone call in a sukkah, but the connection will stay with you long after the sukkah has come down.

Rabbi Betsy Torop is the Director of Rabbinic Engagement and Growth for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. 

Categories
High Holy Days News

Creation: Fed up with Tohu

I am honored and excited to be the new editor at the CCAR Press. Under the leadership of Rabbi Hara Person, I will be listening to your ideas, reading what your write, and working with you to create books, apps, and online learning opportunities!

Think about me as your editor, liturgist, and teacher.

As I did for the last six years, I will spend the upcoming High Holidays at a JCC in Chevy Chase-Bethesda, Maryland, where I work as a cantorial soloist. Each year, I deliver the sermon on Erev Rosh haShanah. This is a snippet of the (oh, too many words) I am going to share on that Bimah:

 

I, personally, try to laugh that laughter more often these days. It’s a laughter that is forgiving towards myself, towards the human beings around me, and towards this entire mess of our chaotic world. I try to internalize that all we have is a little Torah (a book written after all,  on the skin of a dead cow) in order to help us figure out together the nature of this mystical creation, and write together the Torah of our lives, Torat Hayim, the Torah of Life, a living Torah.

In other moments, I, like so many others, grow impatient, and then I write poems (S. Pilz (2018): Creation. Unpublished.) like this one:

Creation: Fed up with Tohu

What if in the beginning
Something did get consumed?
With black coal a universe got written
Dancing, twisting, whimpering, crawling,
What if in the beginning,
Something was broken.

You and I, we shine together.

What if we were to learn
How to calmly tame our fire?
Will we then crush gently,
And rise,
With a kiss?

 

Most of our time on earth, it seems to me, gets spent trying to figure out how to live this life right here and now. We are getting used to ourselves and to others. We build relationships, co-creating our own entire little universes. This way, all of us re-create and change the world in every single second. This, now, is a moment when the world gets re-created by us. And now. At every single moment of our lives.

And in these moments, as all of us are sitting here together, creating a universe of prayer, Torah, singing, learning, the order of prayer, reflection, and beauty, I want to share yet another poem with you, a second poem by the American writer Mary Oliver (M. Oliver (1992): New and Selected Poems, from “The Summer Day”, p. 94.) who wrote the poem with which I opened my sermon:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz earned a doctorate from the department of Rabbinic Literature at Potsdam University, Germany; she holds Rabbinic Ordination from Abraham Geiger College, Germany. Prior to joining the CCAR Press as editor, Sonja taught Jewish liturgy, worship, and ritual at HUC-JIR, NY; the School of Jewish Theology at Potsdam University; and in many congregational settings. She served as a visiting rabbi and cantorial soloist in congregations in Germany, Switzerland, Israel, and the US.

Categories
Healing High Holy Days

A Less Lonely Path to Repentance

The High Holy Day days can be a lonely experience. Though many of us gather in overflowing sanctuaries, together with family and friends who constitute a community, each of us must confess our individual sins, seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, change our ways, offer tzedakah, and pray for our own individual absolution. We seem not to receive, or to give, any assistance in the process of repentance.

Our lonely journey to forgiveness was not always the Jewish way. When our ancestors required expiation, they would bring a sacrifice to the Temple. The blood of the animal, slain in the sacred ritual, would atone for their sins. Yes, the penitent Jew had to recite the appropriate words, and was required to provide the animal for the sacrifice, so the individual did have some role in that process, but the Priest did most of the work and the poor animal paid the ultimate price. The ancient Israelite was the beneficiary of what might be called “vicarious atonement,” forgiveness through the sacrifice from the flocks or the herds.

Christianity adopted this idea of vicarious atonement, with the faith that Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross, atones for the sins of others. Perhaps because Jews tend to disassociate ourselves so forcefully from that specific Christian claim, we have shied away from any notion that anyone or anything other than ourselves can help return us to the good graces of our God. Perhaps we protest too much. After all, we confess in the first person plural, “the sins we have committed.” Why not seek forgiveness communally?

Our Rosh Hashanah prayers do declare that we may find forgiveness in the righteousness of others. One portion of our shofar service is called zichronot, or remembrances. We ask God to hear the blasts and remember the righteousness of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. If we do not deserve atonement on these High Holy Days, we beg God to forgive us on account of their merit.

More personally, each of us recalls loved ones, now gone from this world, who had laudable traits that we wish we possessed. We may pray, in words of Reform prayer books past: “May the nobility in their lives and the high ideals they cherished endure in our thoughts and live on in our deeds.” Our beloved dead can truly live, if we will carry the goodness of their lives into our own. Perhaps, too, when we fall short, God will recall our loved ones’ goodness, and forgive us on their account.

Blessedly, our partners in repentance may include the people who continue to share our lives every day. Judaism teaches us the value of the tocheha, the loving rebuke, delivered in the right spirit, in the right time, in the right place. Nothing makes me a better person than a caring critique from a person who cares deeply about me. Even if we recoil from the rebuke upon first hearing it, we can learn, and become better people, in the process. Living in covenant calls upon us to help each other to abandon our unholy paths.

Let us find forgiveness for ourselves and offer atonement to others in the embrace of community on these High Holy Days.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
High Holy Days Prayer

On the Same Page

How to get 6000+ people on the same page for a service? When we started Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars more than a decade ago, we didn’t even know this was an important question to address.

Laura Black, a decades-long member of the congregation, mentioned her idea to Cantor Judi Rowland while both were working out at the gym. She told Judi that while her adult children had no interest in joining her for our ‘regular’ services, she thought that she could persuade them if we would hold a service outside somewhere, maybe in a park. We were taken with the idea as Cantor Rowland, Rabbi Rex Perlmeter and I thought about the possibilities for engagement and outreach.  We began plans to take our ‘Alternative/Family’ service out of the social hall and into Oregon Ridge Park where the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra regularly holds their summer concert series.

As we concocted that first RHUS, we had a couple of principles in mind that still hold 11 years later. We wanted the service to be free, open to the public, accessible and warm. We wanted people to know that even though they would be welcome wearing shorts, eating picnics, not shushing their kids, that this would be a service and not an “event.” For that first year, our clergy team put together a small service booklet and ambitiously printed double the number of attendees we expected. “If 500 people show up,” we thought, “that will be incredible!”  When that first Erev Rosh Hashanah arrived, we found that we had over 1500 in our remarkable congregation.

During the second and third year’s planning meetings, I fretted that many of those booklets had not returned to us. I was concerned about the potential chilul of where those booklets might have ended up and about the environmental waste of resources that would not be re-used and possibly not recycled. I wanted to revise some of the language we had chosen, but didn’t want to get rid of all the books we still had on hand. Some time between the third and fifth year I encountered Visual T’filah at a convention. At first I was wary – prayers projected on a huge screen felt too ‘megachurchy,’ too ‘non-Jewish’ for all the obvious reasons. But I also found the pictures accompanying prayers engaging and the images added intriguing layers of meaning.

I reached out to Rabbi Dan Medwin, Visual T’filah’s creator, and gathered a small group of smart and creative congregants. We studied the Erev Rosh Hashanah service and decided on imagery. One offered his own photography, another her own artwork. We went through revisions with Dan and finalized a beautiful prayer book that would be displayed on a jumbo screen flanking the band shell transformed into a bima.  In 2011 Visual T’filah became the prayer book of RHUS. In the years that followed, we were able to change translations, swap songs and add or remove images without any of the attendant waste. After a year or two, as ipads and smart phones became ubiquitous, we wanted people to have the option of downloading the service in advance. This felt especially important for the attendees toward the back of the ever-growing crowd. Dan devised and revised the download process so that attendees could have it in hand or watch it on the big screen.

Who knows what alchemy has allowed RHUS to grow to over 6000 attendees in the decade+ of its existence? We now have two jumbo screens as well as banks of enormous speakers. There are families whose children have never known an Erev Rosh Hashana without Visual T’filah, lawn chairs, and fantastically vibrant community. BHC members come together with unaffiliated Jews, folks who belong to other Reform, Conservative and even Orthodox congregations in Baltimore, Washington DC, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and a handful of non-Jews who just want to share in the celebration of a New Year with us. It is truly a blessing to have 6000+ people together on the same jumbo page, if only for one service a year.

Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen is one of the rabbis at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation where she has served for 14 years.