Like many Jews, I have been searching for a High Holyday experience that is extremely meaningful and opens up the heart.
When I was a child in Detroit, I attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at a very large congregation where the Cantor had a great voice and the Rabbi was a good person, but their words and their rituals seemed far removed from my daily life as a rebellious teenager.
It wasn't until I became an adult in Los Angeles at a smaller and more intimate congregation that the personal relevance and the healing possibilities of the High Holydays began to reach deeply into my soul.
If you (or someone else you care about) have felt bored, left out, or frustrated at a Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service that didn't inspire you in a profound way, I hope this year will be different and better.
After interviewing many women and men of all ages on what causes them to feel uplifted (or to feel let down) by the High Holydays, here are a few specific things that you or someone you care about can do this year to improve things:
Possibility #1: MAKE SURE TO START YOUR INNER EXPLORATIONS EARLIER THIS YEAR
Most people show up on the actual date of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur feeling quite stressed and somewhat distracted from the pressures of their work, their family situation, random traffic jams, their cell phones, the unstable economy, or an emotionally-exhausting health crisis. But I've found that many highly-perceptive women and men who manage to get the most out of these sacred holidays tend to start a little earlier to ask their heart, their soul, and their kishkas, "What are my deepest longings this year? Where am I missing the mark on following through with my soul's current purpose? What are the hurt feelings and miscommunications I carry inside that need to be cleared up? Who do I need to forgive? And is there someone I need to ask for forgiveness?"
At Ahavat Torah Congregation, which meets each Saturday morning in Brentwood at 343 Church Lane near Montana Avenue and the 405, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell gives gentle and loving reminders during August and throughout September about the ancient and modern teachings that can help us open up our hearts and begin to heal during the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
These pro-active inner explorations are discussed during the Hebrew month of Elul (August 21st - September 18th) and there are some extremely helpful and inspiring teachings at this time of year about how to "circumcise one's heart" and "remove the emotional scar tissue and coverings" that are holding each of us back from the unrestricted love and creative flow that we long for.
It is said by several rabbis that the four Hebrew letters of Elul are the same as the first letters of the heartfelt words from the Song of Songs that we all hear at most Jewish weddings, "Ahnee l'dodee, v'dodee lee, I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."
So during the late-summer month of Elul we are encouraged to look closely at each of our loving relationships and to ask ourselves honestly if we are feeling a bit distant or disconnected toward a spouse, an ex, a friend, a former friend, a neighbor, a sibling, a child, a co-worker, a troubled relative, or someone else from long ago who is still in our thoughts. We take a moment to admit if someone has hurt us or if we have (intentionally or unintentionally) hurt someone else, even in the smallest way.
We also are encouraged to take some time during the month of Elul to look honestly at our loving relationship (or our feelings of disconnection) with the hard-to-define "One who is beyond human understanding." The weeks leading up to the High Holydays are an especially crucial time to ask, "Does this mysterious bond between my soul and the creative Soul of the universe feel like a relationship that is fully vibrant and grateful recently?" Or is there some healing that needs to be explored between you and the One who originally brought you to this dance called life?
High Holyday Improvement Possibility #2: PICK ONE OR MORE ACTION STEPS FOR HEALING AND RENEWAL THAT YOU WANT TO EXPLORE DURING THE HIGH HOLYDAY SEASON
What makes this time of year so profound and rich for many individuals is that it's not just about contemplation but also about taking action. During these awesome weeks of honest soul-searching there are many possible options for awakening your higher self and reconnecting with what truly matters in your life. Some actions steps you might consider in the next few weeks are:
--Attending a class about how to use Jewish methods to open your heart and heal on a spiritual level. Rabbi Miriam Hamrell will be discussing how to use Psalms and other profound ways to prepare for the High Holydays during her Saturday morning Mussar classes the next few weeks from 9-10 am at the Gem in the Glen, 343 Church Lane in Brentwood. Everyone is invited, including those who have not attended a Mussar class recently (Mussar is the Jewish practice of working on character/integrity issues using ancient and modern Jewish teachings). Also on Tuesday night August 25th and Tuesday night September 1st there will be classes available for anyone who is interested in how to understand High Holyday prayers and meditations, taught by congregation member Rinat Amir and Rabbi Miriam.
--Attending the beautiful and spiritually-profound holiday of Selichot (a Hebrew word that means forgiveness) on Saturday night, September 12th where Rabbi Miriam will lead a discussion on how to take action toward repairing our relationships with others, with God, and with ourselves. Selichot is celebrated each year on the Saturday night approximately a week prior to Rosh Hashanah to open up our hearts to some sacred melodies and to the relationship-repair steps of the holiday season.
--Reading a book or a chapter of a book that takes you deeper into your personal exploration of the mysteries of faith, doubt, renewal, healing our strained relationships, when to forgive and when to let go, plus how to turn important areas of your life toward a more holy direction.
--Making a commitment to join a Torah study group, a Mussar study group, or discuss with a friend or study partner each week how to stay on track toward the goals and vows that are most important to you.
High Holyday Improvement Possibility #3: SELECT A PLACE FOR ROSH HASHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR WHERE YOU WILL FEEL WELCOMED AND RESPECTED FOR EXACTLY WHERE YOU ARE THIS YEAR AS AN IMPERFECT BUT WONDERFUL HUMAN BEING
I remember as a child that for many of the members of my congregation in Detroit, the High Holydays seemed to be about getting dressed up in fancy clothes, keeping score on who's doing well and who isn't, or trying to pretend everything was fine even when it wasn't.
Thankfully, I have found as an adult that at places like Ahavat Torah (which holds its Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services each year in the beautiful sanctuary of Kehillat Maarav on 21st and Olympic in Santa Monica), it's not about superficial appearances or clever cover-ups.
There's something positively transforming about walking into a holy sanctuary with bright stained glass windows of Jewish themes, gorgeous flower arrangements put together by Ahavat Torah member Val Eule, and lots of warm and friendly women and men of all ages. Rather than feeling coldly institutional or intellectually rigid, there is a sense of inclusive community and lively participation that can be felt by long-time members and complete strangers who are there for the very first time.
The Ahavat Torah services have both Hebrew and English (with easy-to-follow transliterations of the Hebrew words for non-Hebrew speakers). There are numerous times during the services when members and non-members are invited to share from the heart or to ask questions about the deeper meaning of particular sections of the services.
Rabbi Miriam Hamrell each year speaks eloquently at various key moments of the services about her own "holy struggles" and how she deals with them in a humble and inspiring way. Cantorial Soloist Gary Levine not only has an amazing voice but also is able to bring sincere emotion to the way he phrases and chants the thought-provoking melodies so that each of us in the congregation goes deeper in our understanding of the sacred meditations.
This year the inspiring music will also include at times the exquisite singing of Associate Cantorial Soloist Kimberly Haynes, as well as the Kol Nidre cello of Marion Klein, and the Ahavat Torah volunteer "mini-choir" consisting of Judy Dubin, Vivian Gold, Marion Klein, and Jonathan Troper.
Because Rabbi Miriam and Torah trope guide Rena Jaffe have been encouraging more people to be a part of chanting the sacred teachings, there are several members currently practicing the melodies and words for the Torah and Haftarah portions, including Pattye Asarch, Sasha Borenstein, Beth Devermont, Estelle Fisher, Sasha Firman, Vivian Gold, Rena Jaffe, Aharon Nachshon, Gloria Orenstein, Glynnis Ortiz Golden, Judith Rafael, Rita Reuben, Arva Rose, and Judy Weintraub Warren.
Ahavat Torah is a place where people who grew up Reform, Conservative, Traditional, Non-traditional, or Unaffiliated all can join together in a welcoming and non-judgmental congregation that calls itself "One Torah, One People, Many Teachers." Most of us can remember feeling bored or frustrated at some High Holyday service years ago. That's why so many of us feel extremely glad to have found a growing community that is so lively, friendly, and inspiring. Together this congregation that is only 7 years old has created a safe place to do the important inner work of healing, repair, and renewal that takes us into a new year of blessings.
(Please feel free to forward or give this August/September weblog article to anyone who wants to deepen their experience of the High Holydays this year).
For more information about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or other services and social action programs of Ahavat Torah Congregation,
please call 310 362-1111 or visit the website http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/.
This year the High Holydays will be:
--Selichot (exploring forgiveness) Saturday night, Sept 12 at the Gem in the Glen, 343 Church Lane near Montana and the 405 in Brentwood
--Rosh Hashanah Eve, Friday night, Sept 19 at Kehillat Maarav, 21st and Olympic in Santa Monica
--Rosh Hashanah Day, Saturday, Sept 20 at Kehillat Maarav, 21st and Olympic in Santa Monica
--Tashlich (letting go of old habits and opening up to new visions) at the beach in Santa Monica, Saturday afternoon, Sept 20
--Kol Nidre Service, Erev Yom Kippur, Sunday night Sept 27 at Kehillat Maarav, 21st and Olympic in Santa Monica
--Yom Kippur Day (Morning Prayer Service, Torah Teachings, Jonah's Journey, Yizkor/Kaddish, Ne'ilah, and Shofar), Monday Sept 28 at Kehillat Maarav, 21st and Olympic in Santa Monica
--Break-the-Fast Community Dinner, immediately following services, Monday night, Sept 28 at Kehillat Maarav