Yom Rivii, 29 Elul 5777

High Holiday Lessons from an Alaskan Glacier

A deafening roar assaulted our ears as a house-sized iceberg crashed into the water and another warehouse-sized chunk of blackened ice rose out of the water, high into the sky. As Alaska’s Columbia Glacier calved (broke off) yet another expansive section of its blue ice face, we were filled with radical amazement.

Standing on the deck of a boat floating amongst SUV-sized icebergs strewn all around Alaska’s Columbia Bay, we quickly understood that we are infinitesimally small actors on the stage of Creation. The world is growing and changing all around us, in awesome and frightening ways. As the wise rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov aptly cautioned us to remember: M’lo chol haaretz k’vodo – the whole earth is filled with Majestic Holiness – but we humans take our little hands and cover our eyes. We miss it.

We who live in cities and suburbs can easily become separated from the rhythms of nature. We notice some things: A flower blossoms. A stream flows by. The California sun scorches our garden. We alter our haircut. We take a different route to work. We redecorate a few rooms in the house. But fundamentally, while the world around us changes significantly, it appears unchanging and static to us.

That human-centered perspective ignores the awesome magnificence that surrounds us on this little planet we call home. And that’s why, every year, Jews and Jewish families need to gather together on Rosh Hashana.

Hayom Harat Ha-olam (Today the World was Birthed)

Rosh HaShanah (literally, “the head of the year”) is about more than a delicious meal shared with family and friends or a day or two spent in the synagogue singing, praying, and counting upon our blessings. According to our tradition, Rosh HaShanah marks the day that God created the world (Hayom harat ha-olam).

The Hebrew word “harat” is related to birthing. The Source of Life, according to some commentators, birthed a new existence in those first moments of Creation. Like a woman lovingly birthing a baby, like an Alaskan glacier calving its icebergs, the Creator of All, according to the Kabbalistic mystics, separated out some of the Divine holy light to create our universe. Rosh HaShanah, therefore, might be described as “the birthday of the world.”

On birthdays, we celebrate another year of life. We count the blessings from the year gone by, and evaluate the ways our lives failed to live up to the dreams we had. We recognize that we are changing and fragile. On our birthdays, we sometimes commit to making the coming year a better and healthier one for ourselves and our loved ones.

On Rosh HaShanah, the birthday of our world, we similarly reflect upon the blessings we experienced from our planet over the past year: in nature, in our gardens, at the beach, and in relationship with others. On Rosh HaShanah, we take stock of our existence and admit an awesome truth: that our world too is both changing and fragile and it needs our attention to protect it from the ravages of time and humanity. On Rosh HaShanah, we bless the world and the Holy One who created it.

Lessons from the Glacier

We learn lessons, too, on Rosh HaShanah.

We learn that being ever-changing, we humans want to notice the beauty of each moment of life before it inevitably moves on.

We learn that being ever changing, we humans become imitation Dei, God’s imitators and partners, who strive to help make Creation blossom.

We learn that this is an amazing planet on which we live. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

So this Rosh HaShanah, enjoy dinner with family and friends, find a congregation in which to pray and give thanks, and take a moment to praise Creation, for it is amazing.


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Taking a Closer Look at the Words That Move Me on Rosh HaShanah

While my synagogue has switched to Mishkan T'filah, the Reform siddur (prayer book) used during weekdays, Shabbat, and festivals, we’ve yet to begin using Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform machzor (High Holiday prayer book).

On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we use an older version of the machzor titled Gates of Repentance, which includes gendered language such as Lord and “He” (when referencing God). This year, our congregational clergy made a concerted effort to locate as many gender-neutral versions of Gates of Repentance as possible, with the goal of collecting more than 1,000 machzorim (the plural of prayer books) for our synagogue.

In the past, our clergy changed their wording on the High Holidays to be more inclusive and gender-neutral even though the machzorim were not. I have to admit, though, that for awhile, I did not realize there were two versions of the machzor, as I’ve always preferred to listen to the prayers rather than to read them

This year, though, will be different.

This year, I was given the honor of being asked to read the Haftarah on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, Isaiah 55.6-13. My wife Lauren was asked to recite the blessings before and after the Haftarah. We opted to read them in English.

As I practiced my Haftarah, the words flowed, but I didn't feel the emotion I'd hoped it would evoke. The lack of emotion had nothing to do with “Eternal One” replacing “Lord," but perhaps it had everything to do with my not yet understanding the portion. So I took the time to try to understand the meaning of the words. 

I discovered that this portion of Isaiah is, in my opinion, about our relationships with God: what is expected of us, how we should achieve forgiveness, how we know if God is satisfied. We are told:

“Seek the Eternal One while there is still time; call out while God is near.  Let the wicked forsake their ways, and the sinful their thoughts.  Let them return to the Eternal One, who will show them compassion; to our God, who is quick to forgive.”

So if I toss bread into the water at Tashlich, attend High Holidays services, and recite the prayers, is that good enough for God? Is that good enough for me?

The answer to both is a resounding no.

At first read, God comes across as egotistical. The following is a list of God’s accomplishments; the words “My,” “Me,” and “Mine” are all referring to God.

“For My thoughts are not like yours nor are your ways like Mine…”  “For high as the heavens above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My thoughts above your thoughts...”

After reading the portion a few times and breaking it down into sections – even examining them out of order – I realized that this passage isn’t about ego after all.

We know who God is. I see this as a challenge from God to strive for more. Not to settle. Although we are created in God’s image, we can’t be exactly like God, and God knows that. While we can’t think like God, we do have thoughts – and just as God did, we have to put our thoughts to good use.

So what should I do?

This passage also taught me that I need to try harder – that I need to be more patient, more understanding, and more compassionate. This passage asks what we should do to assist God in tikkun olam, the repair of our broken world, compelling us not stand idly by when injustices occur.

And it isn’t just about asking for forgiveness. We need to support God in our ways and thoughts, even if we never match the work of God. We have the ability to please God. We need God as much as God needs us.

In the final passage, God shows us the reward for the work done:

“…Just as rain and snow come down from the sky without returning, but water the earth, making it blossom and bear fruit, yielding seed for sowing and bread to eat...”  “…For you shall go out in joy; you shall be led forth in peace. Before your mountains and hills shall break out in joyous song, and all the tress of the field shall clap their hands. Cypress shall grow instead of thorn-bushes, myrtle instead of briar. These shall be a monument to God, an everlasting sign that will stand firm.”

How will I measure my work? Well, I don’t require anything as symbolic as seeing cypress or myrtle. I prefer to remain in the background, watching whatever project I’ve worked on succeed, and knowing I gave it my best – as I go onto the next challenge and try my best again.

What has your Rosh HaShanah self-reflection taught you?

Shanah tovah, a sweet new year.


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A Poem for Tashlich: “Stale Bread and Old Sins”

Tashlich, which means “to cast,” is a ritual practice of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews that customarily takes place on the afternoon of Rosh HaShanah. Gathered along the shores of a natural body of water such as a stream, river, lake, or ocean, Jews cast small pieces of bread (or more environmentally sound objects) into the water, symbolizing their sins of the past year.

The liturgy for Tashlich varies from community to community, but generally includes these verses from Micah, which relate the themes of the High Holidays to the ritual itself:

Who is a God like You,
Forgiving iniquity
And remitting transgression;
Who has not maintained God’s wrath forever
Against the remnant of God’s own people,
Because God loves graciousness!
The Eternal will take us back in love;
Adonai will cover up our iniquities,
You will hurl all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.
You will keep faith with Jacob,
Loyalty to Abraham,
As You promised on oath to our fathers
In days gone by.
-- Micah (7:18-19)

In 2012, Stacey Zisook Robinson wrote this poem, "Stale Bread and Old Sins," about the ritual of Tashlich:

The ducks grow fat on my sins.
The ravens, too.
I saw a flock of them--
A murderous gaggle,
as they swooped down in tight formation,
fat black missiles,
just after we stood on the bridge over the creek
emptying our pockets and plastic bags
overflowing with
stale bread and old sins.

Of course, not all the bread was stale
nor all the sins old.
I'm sure I collected a few
as I drove to our afternoon gathering
at the creek.
And, possibly,
if I'm being quite honest
(and now, I'm guessing, would be the time for honesty)
I believe there is the possibility
that I racked up several more
while wandering the wooded path
that led to the creek.

While wandering back and forth along the wooded path.
Several times--

-- assuming sarcasm is a sin.

But for a moment,
as my bread arced through leafy boughs
and landed in clear and cluttered water
that moved in a stately rhythm
toward some other stream
that leads to some other lake
that leads to oceans and streams and rivers and lakes
from here to the ancient shores of Phoenicia
to rain-laden clouds, pregnant and billowing.--

-- unless imagination is a sin.

But for a moment.
in that delicate and wobbly arc
of bread and sin combined,
there is a moment of
Of Emptiness
that stretches from my fingertips
to stale bread
and old sins
to that small point of infinite
that pinprick of forever,
carried away on sweetly rushing water
that fills me with light.
And breath.
And God.

Shanah tovah u'metukah!

The ritual of Tashlich on the afternoon of Rosh HaShanah offers us another opportunity during the High Holiday season to take stock of ourselves and our behaviors. By “casting away” the negative deeds and missteps of the past year, we can focus instead on ways to improve ourselves in the year ahead. Will you attend Tashlich this year?

Want to learn more? Watch this video about the ritual of Tashlich and find a Reform congregation so you can participate in all the rituals of this High Holiday season.

Jane E. Herman , a.k.a. JanetheWriter, is the senior writer and editor at the Union for Reform Judaism. She is a graduate of Lafayette College in Easton, PA, and holds a master's degree in public administration from the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. She grew up at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, NJ, and now belongs to Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. A proud New Yorker, she loves books, fountain pens, social media, Words with Friends, mah jongg, and all things Jewish. She blogs at JanetheWriter Writes.

Stacey Zisook Robinson is a member of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL, and Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, IL. She blogs at Stumbling Towards Meaning.


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How to Cast Away Your Sins and Protect the Environment

Tashlichthe Jewish tradition practiced during the Days of Awe (the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur), involves symbolically casting away one’s sins or wrongdoings. This ritual is often performed by tossing bread crumbs into a body of water. For many, Tashlich is an important and meaningful tradition. But, practicing Tashlich with bread crumbs can be dangerous for geese, ducks, and other waterfowl – it keeps them from eating the food that is nutritious for them, and it spreads disease. So, how should people practice the important tradition of casting away sins without doing harm in the process? We asked some rabbis about their environmentally friendly Tashlich practices:

“A member of our congregation taught us that bread crumbs are bad for animals, and since then, we’ve used untreated wood chips. It works very well!”
-- Rabbi Cory Weiss, Temple Har Zion, Thornhill, Ontario

“I use the stones that go into the bottom of a fish tank. They are small pebbles, come in colors, do not harm the water, and are not ingested by fish. I buy a bag and use a small cup to ladle out handfuls to congregants. Individuals find a place at the water’s edge and throw them when they are ready.”
-- Rabbi Shelley Kovar Becker, Gishrei Shalom Jewish Congregation, Southington, CT

“One year when I led a service for teenagers, we wrote down sins/mistakes from the past year on small pieces of paper. Then we took our papers and put them through a paper shredder. It was powerful to take the time to reflect on the past year, write about it, and then shred to begin a clean slate.”
-- Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz, Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston, NJ

Do you have any environmentally friendly Tashlich traditions that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!


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3 Prayers for the Jewish New Year

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish new year, begins Wednesday, September 20, at sundown. As we prepare, emotionally and spiritually, for these Days of Awe, we offer three prayers for the season:

  • "A Rosh HaShanah Prayer for Our Clergy," by Reform liturgist Alden Solovy of To Bend Light, honors the rabbis, cantors, & other spiritual leaders who lift us up and provide us yearround support and guidance. he writes, in part, "As the new year approaches, let it be our job, as congregants, to feed our clergy with love and care. Let it be our sacred calling to lift them up as they lift us. Let us see with fresh and grateful eyes the hard work and the loving hearts that they commit to us."
  • These words are familiar at the High Holidays: "On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed..." Try a new take on an old prayer with Rabbi Joseph Meszler's powerful new piece, "An Alternative Unetaneh Tokef." 
  • If you're looking for a basic, straightforward, but beautiful prayer to say as you usher in the new year, I recommend Rabbi John Rosove's aptly titled "A Prayer for the Jewish New Year," which closes with the following words: "May the Jewish people, the state of Israel, and all peoples / know peace in this New Year, / And may we nurture kindness and love everywhere." Amen.

As we look forward, too, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, consider "Cry No More," also by Alden Solovy. It's about having compassion for ourselves while repairing the damage we’ve done to self and others.

Shanah tovah umetukah, friends. Wishing you a happy, healthy new year.


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On the Virtue of a Bent Finger: A Challenge for the Days of Awe

At several points during recent years’ Days of Awe services, I could swear that I saw index fingers popping out all over the place:

For the sin which we have committed against You through careless speech.

An index finger comes out and points to the person sitting to its owner’s left. “Honey, remember that time when you lashed out at me a few months ago…?”

For the sin which we have committed against You through insincere apologies.

Another index finger emerges as the person on the left points to the right. “Well don’t forget about that time when you apologized for not doing the dishes, and then somehow ‘forgot’ to do them the following evening.”

For the sin which we have committed against You through gossip and rumour.

Another index finger pops out a few rows back, pointing at someone across the room. “Joe over there, he says nasty things about me all the time. Thank goodness I’m not like that.”

As the litany of misdeeds continues to unfold, the index fingers continue to appear. “This person did that,” someone whispers. “That person did this.” “That guy over there should be ashamed of himself.”

The curious thing about those index fingers is that they’re all straight, and they all point outward, away from their owners. They’re all fingers of accusation, not fingers of ownership and responsibility.

It makes sense, I suppose. We’ve all been wronged, and often those wrongs cause us pain. It would be great if we could get those who have wronged us to own up to what they did and apologize.  Human nature, it seems, makes those fingers want to pop out straight.

But what’s important to remember is that all of this finger pointing is decidedly not what the Days of Awe are about.  The Days of Awe encourage us not to get other people to take responsibility for their misdeeds, but rather to get each of us to take responsibility for our own. The emphasis isn’t on what they’ve done wrong; its on what you’ve done wrong.

So here’s my suggestion: During the upcoming Days of Awe, when you feel your finger starting to pop out and point at someone else – and pop out it surely will – then just bend that finger back so that it points at you. Focus your efforts not on what others have done to you, but on the ways you’ve fallen short and can improve in the future.

To be sure, that finger isn’t going to want to bend back at all, for life is much easier when we focus on other people’s misdeeds rather than our own. But the challenge of these holidays is to bend it back anyway. We must force ourselves, often against our will, to look at our own shortcomings and re-chart our course toward a better life.

Those pesky fingers are going to want to point at others; don’t let them. For only when we look at ourselves – deeply, honestly, and thoroughly – can we answer the great call of these great days. Only then can we take our first steps, however tentatively, toward return, repentance, and a better life.

During these upcoming Days of Awe, may we all find the strength to do just that.        

Shanah tovah umetukah. May you and your loved ones have a good, sweet new year.


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On Yom Kippur, Hearing Isaiah’s Prophetic Voice at the Kotel

Build up, build up a highway! Clear a road! Remove all obstacles from the road of My people! (Isaiah 57:14)

On Yom Kippur, when haftarah readers all over the world will raise their voices in chant – so-lu so-lu… build up build up a highway – the symbolic image of Isaiah’s highway translates in my mind to the major roadways crisscrossing Israel today. Road-building and highway expansions in Israel are a good sign for the country’s overall economic health. I’m especially excited about the new high-speed rail between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. This concretization of symbol doesn’t solely stem from my imagination – the revitalization of Hebrew in the early 20th century as a modern functional language is filled with examples of biblical poetic symbols literally hitting the pavement.  By the way, mesilah – a train track – is another modern Hebrew word taken from Isaiah (see Isaiah 62:10). 

But momentary flashes of real Israeli highways slip away as the power of Isaiah’s prophetic metaphors call us to reflect upon the moral and spiritual shortcomings, the obstacles standing in the way of the Jewish people’s progress. As the haftarah for Yom Kippur, this message is intensified by the prophet’s words later in this section:

Is this the fast I desire? A day for people to starve their bodies? … No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness…to let the oppressed go free…to share the bread with the hungry.… (Isaiah 58:5-7)  

So, when I imagine myself sitting in synagogue this Yom Kippur and listening to Isaiah rail against the religious hypocrisy of not turning the experience of fasting into acts of justice, of helping the oppressed, my head again fills with current images of metaphoric and real construction both demonstrating obstacles to realizing Isaiah’s call to justice. One example in Israel is particularly striking to me.

During the early summer uproar over the pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall), when liberal Jewish activists criticized the leaders of major Jewish organizations about why they were uniting vociferously only about the injustice of not having an egalitarian prayer space, which they see as a personal freedom issue, and not over major injustices that place hardships on oppressed and impoverished populations daily, I thought ahead to this passage from Isaiah and to a similar idea in the prophet Micah. Many of these young activists, alumni of our best Jewish educational experiences, felt justified in reminding Jewish leaders of what we taught them about the prophets:

With what shall I approach the Lord…shall I approach him with burnt offerings...?   He has told you, O human, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. (Micah 6:6,8)

Personally, I see the opening of such honest conversation as constructive. American and Israeli Reform leaders responded to the critical questions raised about the energy being poured into the Kotel controversy by expressing the Movement’s longstanding social justice commitments more clearly and loudly. For the leaders of liberal Jewish movements, this pluralistic prayer area represents a space for religiously liberal Jews to bring the fullness of their progressive commitments to democracy and human rights. And, I think it is clear that this is part of what scares the haredi opposition. 

Toward the end of the Yom Kippur haftarah, Isaiah says:

“People from your midst shall rebuild the ancient ruins, You shall restore foundations laid long ago, and you shall be called ‘Repairer of fallen walls, restorer of lanes for in-dwelling” (Isaiah 58:12).

I see these words describing the day when liberal Jews will enter the Kotel plaza, congregating in prayer with all their values. I know the progressive siddurim (prayer books) they will daven (pray) from will give voice to social justice ideals that Isaiah and Micah teach us. Inclusion and egalitarianism will be celebrated as minyanim (prayer groups of at least 10 people) are formed.  I hope, too, that the symbols and architecture of the space will give expression to the values encompassed by peace and a respect for all humanity. 

Sadly, we don’t know how close we are to realizing even the preliminary vision of this section of the Kotel. Beyond its potential to give voice to liberal Jewish prayer, I’d like to see it go beyond what Isaiah envisioned as repairing walls and restoring lanes for in-dwelling. Is it not too daring to think that this new area in Jerusalem’s Old City might also become a connector to Muslim and Christians praying nearby in the spirit of co-existence?


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7 Things to Know About S’lichot

S’lichot (which literally means “forgiveness”) are penitential prayers recited before and during the High Holidays and other fast days throughout the year. Like other activities during Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes the High Holidays, they offer an opportunity for personal reflection and to seek forgiveness from those we may have wronged during the year just ending.

  1. S’lichot prayers focus on God’s benevolence, compassion, and the “Thirteen Attributes” with which God is said to govern the world. God proclaimed the “Thirteen Attributes” to Moses following the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 34:6-7), expressing God’s tremendous capacity for forgiveness. These words echo throughout the High Holiday liturgy.
  1. Among Ashkenazi Jews (and in many Reform congregations), s’lichot services (sometimes spelled selichot) are held late on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah. Because Shabbat has ended and a new week has begun, this time is considered particularly auspicious for penitential prayers.
  1. In addition to the s’lichot prayers themselves, often recited by candlelight, many synagogues offer a full evening of programming that may include mystical practices associated with s’lichot and/or discussions or a film focused on forgiveness, setting the stage for the upcoming Days of Awe.
  1. Music is part of the s’lichot experience as well, and the same special nusach (musical melodies and modes) used throughout the High Holidays also are used during s’lichot services, again setting the mood for individuals to reflect on the past year and the changes they wish to make in themselves in the coming year.
  1. When the first day of Rosh HaShanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday, s’lichot services are held on the Saturday night before the one immediately preceding Rosh HaShanah. In the Sephardic community, s’lichot prayers are recited throughout the month of Elul.
  1. Immediately before the s’lichot service, it is customary to change the Torah covers to those specifically designed for the High Holidays. The special covers are usually white, representing purity and the wish that through repentance, our sins will be made white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).
  1. This year, s’lichot services will be held on Saturday evening, September 16 in many synagogues. Find a Reform congregation near you and inquire about their s’lichot services.

Shana tova u'metukah, a good and sweet year to you.


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I'm Israeli, and Rosh HaShanah Just Isn't the Same in the U.S.

Last year, in a fit of desperation and loneliness, I booked tickets for a five-day trip to Israel for Rosh HaShanah. I didn’t tell my friends I was coming — the sole purpose of my travel was to have a holiday dinner with my family.

Financially, logistically and even physically, it was an ill-advised decision, I know. But for my soul, it was the right thing to do.

I left Israel for New York in 2009. I feel at home in my lush Brooklyn neighborhood with its beautiful brownstones, in an apartment my husband and I have filled with paintings and books. I love that the city has so much to offer as far as diverse faces and stories and religions. I love how New Yorkers refuse to meet a stranger's gaze, but if you drop your wallet or MetroCard on the sidewalk (as, um, I often do) they will come running after you to make sure you retrieve it.

But there are some days when I feel like moving to the U.S. was a huge mistake. These feelings are most acute on the Jewish holidays — especially on Rosh HaShanah.

Celebrating Rosh HaShanah with my family in Israel is the best. We’ve never gone to synagogue; we rarely even mention the fact that it’s the new year. We stain our hands eating juicy pomegranates; we clear our sinuses by slathering horseradish on my grandmother’s homemade gefilte fish. For the main course we eat all kinds of treif delicacies like seafood paella and blue crabs, the preparation of which my mom has long perfected, having become fast friends with the local fishermen. We assure my grandmother and my mother that, yes, there is enough food, and yes, the dishes are just as good as they were last year. But most important we are together, and that fills us all with giddy delight and a certain spiritual awe.

My husband, a nice American Jewish boy, has told me about his own family’s habits on the High Holidays, particularly the long services at his Kansas City synagogue. He does not seem too gung-ho about celebrating the new year. Sure, he’ll fast on Yom Kippur, but he is happy to forgo any rituals when it comes to Rosh HaShanah.

Once, when we visited his parents on the holiday, I attended synagogue with his mother, just to see what it was like. While the service was warm and filled with music, it felt completely alien. It reminded me of a time a few years ago when I snuck into a Midnight Mass with a few other restless Jews. Certainly I could see the awe that came with such a ritual, but I felt very distinctly that this wasn’t for me.

Like about 40 percent of the Jews in Israel, my family is secular. My grandfather, the descendant of more than one rabbi, famously (according to family folklore) held cookouts on Yom Kippur. I now live a short walk away from South Williamsburg’s Satmar community, who believe the Holocaust was divine punishment for a lack of religious piety. But to my grandfather, who lost most of his family to the Nazi regime, the only religious epiphany the Holocaust had in store was that no deity would have let such a horror happen. He decided there was no place for religion in his life.

My family takes being secular very seriously. They scarf down bacon and cheeseburgers whenever they’re available. They love going on road trips on Shabbat. For my grandmother’s 70th birthday, we all take a tour of Jerusalem’s many churches, and, encouraged by our tour guide, sing "Jerusalem of Gold" on a rooftop of a haredi Orthodox neighborhood, where the singing voices of women are explicitly forbidden.

What does it mean to be Jewish when you’ve lost your faith? Most secular Israelis consider themselves Israelis first and then Jewish, according to a recent Pew study. To them, Judaism isn't about religion — it is about culture, ancestry and history.

When you are an Israeli living in Israel, it is so easy to take your Judaism for granted. Judaism is in the language you speak every day; in a golden Star of David necklace; in the foods of myriad Jewish cultures that intermingled; in the Friday-afternoon rush to get your weekend groceries before the stores close for Shabbat.

But more than anything, it’s in family. And in my family, it means Shabbat dinners where candles don’t get lit and blessings don't get recited, yet everyone is laughing and talking as roasted eggplant and matzah ball soup are passed around. After centuries of persecution, here we are sitting as a family, strongly anchored and aware of our history, but confident in our future together. Is there anything more Jewish than that?

When you’re an Israeli outside of Israel, it becomes increasingly hard to take Jewish secularism for granted. Certainly I am still Israeli — but I feel disconnected from my culture, my rituals. In America, doing Jewish things usually means making a religious choice, and with so many diverse and open synagogues, the choices do seem abundant.

Secularism, on the other hand, implies a fast track to assimilation — which isn't my thing, either. You would think that in eight years in the U.S., I would have found some solution that works for me for the Jewish holidays. Yet I still feel just as helpless and lonely whenever September rolls around.

Most of my Israeli friends don’t seem to have solutions, either. Many of them just choose to ignore the Jewish holidays or find a certain comfort in hanging out with other Israelis eating shakshuka at a local Israeli restaurant. Some institutions have tried to introduce Israelis to synagogue culture on their own terms.

None of these have felt right to me, nor has celebrating the new year at services, American-style. So this year, my family is doing something really radical for Rosh HaShanah: My parents and brothers are flying in from Israel, and then we’re all heading to Chicago, where my in-laws will be waiting.

For the holiday meal, we’ve reserved a large table at a seafood restaurant, where we will most certainly delight in treif delicacies. I suppose I have found a way to keep some traditions alive, after all.

Lior Zaltzman wrote this piece for JTA, where it originally appeared. It is republished with permission.


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Please Join Us, But Not Just on the Days of Awe

Last year at this time, there was much discussion in my Facebook feed about whether people should attend High Holiday services; critics argued that the High Holidays are not a full picture of what makes Judaism and a Jewish community special. (Yes, this is what Jewish educators talk about on social media.)

People across the spectrum of Jewish practice devote a significant amount of time to thinking about, planning for, and deciding what to do about the High Holidays. And judging by the angst my colleagues and I feel at this time of year, I think it’s safe to say we expect for many of you to show up – and, yes, for some of you not to return until next Rosh HaShanah.

High Holidays with children can often feel particularly stressful and overwhelming, mainly because of the sheer number of people and the potential unfamiliarity of it all. I feel a sense of responsibility to those families who come through our doors each year, especially those who are trying to decide if dipping their toe into the world of the synagogue and Jewish life is worth it. I want it to be a wonderful experience for you and for your family, and I hope it will be. I hope you will feel the joy and sweetness of Rosh HaShanah, the incredible gift of a moment to slow down and hug your child and hear the solemn and awesome sound of the shofar.

But I also know that many of you will either leave your children at home or spend time chasing them around the room, trying to get them to participate, maybe feeling embarrassed when they don’t. Please don’t feel that way. You are welcome here – no matter how your kids behave, even on the High Holidays, which feel like they have higher stakes. I know, too, that High Holiday tot services can be chaotic, especially if there are hungry or tired toddlers in the room.

Like judging a book by its cover, judging a synagogue by what you see on the High Holidays will tell you something about the community, and maybe offer something exciting that draws you in. But to truly experience the depth, the feeling, and the meaning inherent in the congregation, you have to delve deeper.

The High Holidays are filled with wonderful, meaningful moments, but indeed, they do not tell a community’s whole story. To really experience its awesome power, you should see what comes after the Days of Awe.

We want you to come to High Holiday service and events. They are full of meaning and beauty – and the shofar and the apples and honey are great, too! But please don’t judge a congregation only by what happens in a Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur tot service. Come back when things are less crowded (and less hectic), when we can welcome you properly and show you what we’re all about. Come back for the sights and sounds and tastes of Shabbat (or Sukkot, perhaps the most underrated Jewish holiday ever). Come back – with or without your child – for a class, a movie, a social event, or something else that speaks to you.

Our synagogues are so much more than what you see during just two days a year. On all other days, too, we want to welcome you in.

Find a Reform congregation near you and inquire about their High Holiday services.


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