Torah scroll

A yad rests on an open Torah scroll in the Big Synagogue Museum, Wlodawa, Poland.

As the new year approaches, themes of change, grief and gratitude are at the forefront of rabbis’ messages for the High Holidays.

Rabbi Alicia Magal of the Jewish Community of Sedona and Verde Valley prepared her drasha with an emphasis on resilience.

“What I focused on was that in history we have already gone through times when everything was broken and all had to be recreated,” Magal said. “If you consider the destruction of the temple, if you consider the Crusades and the Inquisition and the expulsion from Spain, if you consider the Holocaust, when have we not been able to overcome huge loss and tragedy and transform it into something that was new and joyful and still rooted, still deeply rooted in Torah and tradition?”

At Congregation NefeshSoul, Rabbi Dr. Susan Schanerman is considering how the themes of the High Holidays can offer guidance amid the year’s change and upheaval.

“I am intensely aware of how different our lives are this year,” Schanerman said. “We have faced different sorts of struggles, anxieties and challenges these past six months. The High Holy Days are always about self-examination, reflection and contemplation of change, but this year these themes feel more pressing and significant.”

Rabbi David Klatzker, the new transitional rabbi at Congregation Or Tzion, will be taking the time to focus on grief as part of the process of self-accounting during the High Holidays.

“Basically I’m focusing on how to grieve well, how to grieve in a healthy fashion,” Klatzker said. “Our entire society is in grief right now because of COVID-19. And of course the congregation is grieving the passing of Rabbi Micah Caplan. And I myself am grieving, I lost my wife of 36 years, she passed away this last April. So the question is, ‘What do you have to do to grieve in the best possible way?’”

The Sun Lakes Jewish Congregation serves a senior community, and Rabbi Irwin Wiener is concerned with reaching congregants who may be feeling disheartened or isolated during the holiday season.

“I think today, because of what’s going on, people are more aware of shortfalls and shortcomings and are concerned about mortality more than ever,” Wiener said.

“I try to help people understand the value and purpose of life, which is what these holidays represent.”

While services will be virtual at the SLJC this year, Wiener believes that they can still help congregants feel a sense of connection.

“Primarily, I’m going to talk about gratitude and thankfulness even during these difficult times,” Wiener said. “We all share the same problems, the same difficulties, the same apprehensions, and the most difficult thing this particular holiday is to get that across, even as we are remote from each other.”

Orthodox synagogues, which strictly adhere to Jewish law that prohibits theuse of technology, will be holding a variety of in-person services across Greater Phoenix, many of which will feature abbreviated services and limit attendance to allow for social distancing.

Despite the shortened services at Orthodox synagogues this year, “the key to davening [‘praying’] is not the length of the services, but the kavanah, ‘intentionality,’ and the quality of our prayers,” Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University in New York, told JNS.

Berman emphasized that the High Holidays are a time to turn toward

prayer and God for support in the midst of uncertainty.

“We are not just asking God to take us out of this struggle, but we must bring God into this struggle. His presence gives us the strength and resilience to carry forward and find hope in this most difficult time,” Berman said. “The central guiding principles in our tradition are safety and health. All of our synagogues and communities need to have these on the forefront of their consciousness.”

Berman also reflected on the idea that sermons might be political this year and said unity should be emphasized. “The central theme of this period is the sanctity of each individual,” he told JNS. “This is demonstrated by our emphasis on safety and health, but also animates our responsibility and connection to one another, and bolsters the fabric of our societal

connection and unity.”

Synagogues of all denominations are working to strike a balance between the old and the new and to make sense of the meaning of the High Holidays.

Magal began planning for the JCSVV’s services by considering the question:

“What are the High Holidays for people?” The list she came up with — community and connection, transformation, growth, study, celebration, prayer, music, self-reflection, sense of renewal, new beginnings, food — gave her a framework to plan not only for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the experience of the High Holidays throughout the month of Elul and the Days of Awe.

“We’re really fulfilling a yearning, a need at this time of year of renewal and return,” Magal said. “And not all of it comes through the services, it’s the

whole experience.”

Congregants at NefeshSoul will also be at home this year, and celebrating the High Holidays alone or with family offers time for reflection and the opportunity to find meaning in traditional themes such as renewal and atonement, Schanerman said.

“In challenging times, such as this year, they become especially significant because we have so much more solitary time in which to consider our lives and our actions,” Schanerman said. “How do we find meaning when so many of the rituals and daily experiences that normally provide meaning are not possible? How do we atone when we are not face-to-face with those to whom we must apologize? And how do we forgive others when we are in so much pain ourselves?”

Creating sacred space in the home is also a theme this year. Klatzker recalled the words of the prophet Ezekiel following the destruction of the First Temple and the idea of the “miniature sanctuary” that followed.

“The rabbis picked up on that phrase ‘miniature sanctuary’ and said the home, the Jewish home, is a miniature sanctuary ... We don’t have a temple of Jerusalem anymore, now we have the Jewish home,” Klatzker said. “And after the pandemic, I think that that’s really a powerful message. Everything now is home-centered. So what does that mean for synagogues? What does that mean for the wider Jewish community?”

Magal reached out to her congregants ahead of the High Holidays to encourage them to change the space around their iPad or computer and separate themselves mentally from work and other day-to-day activities.

“You can put candles or Judaica or a kiddush cup or a nice cloth, you cover the chair or you change your lighting — do something so that it’s not your regular workspace,” Magal said.

Delivering his sermons alone from the sanctuary will be different this year, Wiener said, but also an opportunity for both him and his congregants to turn inward.

“In one respect, it is feeling strange because you feel disconnected. But on the other hand, it’s not so strange because we are looking inward rather than

outward at this particular time,” Wiener said. “This gives us an ample opportunity to say what’s in our hearts, to express what’s on our minds ... Sometimes we become inhibited when we’re talking in a larger group, so perhaps this is a good exercise for understanding ourselves.” JN

Additional reporting by Jackson Richman of JNS.org where a portion of the article first appeared.

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