--the soul-stirring melodies,
--the chance to look at one's life and the upcoming year from a big-picture perspective,
--the opportunity to go deeper into healing some old or new wounds from people who hurt us recently or long ago,
--the sacredness of pouring out your most heartfelt concerns and your hopes to the mysterious One who is beyond words, yet feels like an even stronger Presence on these days of awe,
--and the joy of being part of a caring community that seeks to repair the world in creative and effective ways.
No wonder the vast majority of Jews show up for the High Holy Days even if they've felt somewhat estranged from organized religion for much of the year.
ONE OF THE MOST MISUNDERSTOOD AND AWE-INSPIRING MOMENTS
Possibly the most misunderstood moment of the High Holy Days is the Yizkor (memorial) service on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. The word "yizkor" comes from the word "zakhor" (remember) and it refers not only to the act of remembering and honoring our loved ones who are no longer in physical form, but also to remember to perform acts of loving-kindness in their memory.
According to Dr. Ron Wolfson of American Jewish University, "Originally, Yizkor was recited only on Yom Kippur. Its primary purpose was to remember the deceased by committing to give tzedakah (charity or justice) funds on the theory that good deeds of the survivors elevate the souls of the departed. It also enhanced the chances for personal atonement by doing a deed of loving-kindness."
Yet there has also been a long-standing superstition about the Yizkor service that many people recall from their childhood. At many synagogues, the Yizkor prayers and ceremonies tend to have a very somber, fearful, or anxiety-provoking tone. There is a superstition in many congregations (even today) that the children in attendance (or anyone whose parents are still alive) must leave the room and avoid this sacred moment because it might tempt the "evil eye" if someone with two living parents is in the sanctuary remembering and honoring the dead publicly.
However, most rabbis say there is no legal requirement for those whose parents are alive to leave the service. In most 21st century congregations, everyone is invited to be part of this holy moment of honoring those loved ones who have come before us and to offer moral suport to those sitting near you who are releasing on this holiest of days another layer of the sadness, resentment, or ambivalence they feel toward a close family member or friend who died either recently or long ago.
According to most Jewish scholars, the Yizkor memorial service is not about the fear of death, but rather about celebrating life, creating a holy way to honor the memory of those we learned from, and to search for meaning and renewal despite the many losses and mysteries of life.
A MOST UNIQUE AND MOVING YIZKOR SERVICE
As a child at my grandfather's traditional shul in Detroit, I remember the anxious faces, the hushed voices, and the sense of worry that happened each year as the elders sent the children out of the room before the Yizkor service. Later as an adult, I'd often found the Yizkor services at most congregations to be quite tense and stiff, almost as if the congregation was holding its breath because the topic of death was being mentioned.
Then six years ago I attended for the first time the High Holy Days of Ahavat Torah Congregation, which meets each week during the year in Brentwood but also rents a larger synagogue in Santa Monica for its larger Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
I'd never before experienced such a moving, creative, and uplifting Yizkor ceremony. To my surprise, Rabbi Miriam Hamrell warmly asked the congregation in a friendly and comfortable tone of voice, "How do you remember the essence of your loved ones who are no longer alive?" She then invited the congregation to meditate for a few minutes and remember the cooking, the smells from the kitchen, the holiday tables, the words of wisdom, the conversations that truly mattered, and the unique qualities of a complicated individual that you struggled with, loved, and learned from recently or many years ago.
Suddenly the room came alive with emotions and memories. Each person in a silent moment of reflection was truly remembering one or more loved ones from recent years or long ago.
Then Rabbi Miriam opened up a fascinating conversation to let 10 or 20 spontaneously selected congregants speak to the entire gathering for one minute each. What a radical idea! To let the congregation (dues-paying members, guests, family members, friends, and many first-time visitors) pour out their memories, their joy, their sadness, their humor, and their vivid recollections about specific loved ones they had come to honor.
After a few minutes of crying, laughing, kvelling, and learning together from the brief one-minute stories about these precious souls (who are no longer physically present but are still alive in our hearts), the sanctuary seemed abundantly filled with so much sense of community and belonging. We were all diverse and unique big-city individuals in the room, yet we had joined together in remembering and honoring many of the fascinating characters that had inspired us and helped us become who we are today. It felt in that moment as though we were all one connected, supportive family (even those who were attending for the very first time).
HOW A NEW IDEA GETS STARTED
I recently asked Rabbi Miriam Hamrell how she got the idea to do something new and inspiring as part of the traditional Yizkor service. She told me, "I didn't plan it. Sometimes when I am completely in the moment with the prayers and focusing on the sincerity of the Ahavat Torah congregants singing so passionately, something just comes through me and I decide to go with it. Many of the most beautiful moments in our congregation seem to happen spontaneously and I had no idea how profound and deep this new ritual would become."
At the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services of Ahavat Torah in September 2010, there will be many traditional moments that are just like every other congregation in the world. Some of the sacred melodies and meditations go back many hundreds of years.
Yet there will also be some spontaneous moments of exploring new interpretations, new wisdom, and new ways of making the holidays come alive. If you or someone you know has ever wanted to find a way to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more meaningful, more life-changing, and more understandable, I hope to see you at the Ahavat Torah gatherings in Santa Monica which are only a few weeks away.
This medium-sized community called Ahavat Torah: One Torah, One People, Many Teachers consists of men and women from diverse backgrounds--Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Secular, and Unaffiliated. I've found that no one gets judged or told what they must do in this creative and supportive congregation. Instead, each participant in the weekly services and the High Holy Day gatherings tends to have a few things in common--a respect for each individual's different path in life, a warmth for each unique soul in the room, and a strong desire to go deeper into both the traditional and the modern ways of connecting with Jewish wisdom.
One of the reasons why Ahavat Torah, which was founded in 2003, keeps attracting more and more people each year is because their Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services are balanced between what is ancient holiness and what is contemporary holiness. These are holiday services where I can bring along my father-in-law who likes the traditional melodies and prayers, but it's also a service where I can invite family members and friends who are much younger and who enjoy the creative intrepretations and deep discussions that make the holidays far more understandable and meaningful.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are much earlier this year than in most years. Please reserve a spot for yourself and the people you care about in the next few days. The prices of tickets are relatively inexpensive compared to most congregations and they are available right now on http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or by calling 310 362-1111 or in the weekly newsletter. Your ticket request should be sent before September 1st if possible.
The services and special events are:
--Erev Rosh Hashanah Wednesday night Sept. 8th from 7-9 pm at Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica.
--Rosh Hashanah Day on Thursday Sept. 9th from 10 am - 1 pm at Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica.
--Erev Yom Kippur and Kol Nidre Service, Friday night Sept. 17th from 7-9:30 pm at Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica.
--Yom Kippur Day and Yizkor Services, Saturday Sept. 18th from 10 am - 7 pm at Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica.
Also please watch the congregational newsletter for information about several other special events for going deeper into the inner work of the High Holy Days (if you want to get on the newsletter list please visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or call 310 362-1111). The additional holiday events are:
--Monday morning August 30th, join Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and several from our congregation in the holy experience of the Mikveh (immersion in living waters) at American Jewish University to release and prepare for the High Holy Days. Please contact the Rabbi as soon as possible if you plan to attend.
--Tuesday night, August 31st in the Fireside Room of 343 Church Lane in Brentwood, a lively class and discussion led by Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus on "Preparing Your Heart for the High Holidays." Please RSVP to Leslie Tuchman at email@example.com if you might be attending.
--Saturday night, September 4th in the Fireside Room of 343 Church Lane is the Selichot (forgiveness) service with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell and Cantor Gary Levine. It is an inspiring and traditional way to clarify the steps you can take to heal your heart and resolve your unfinished emotional business before the holidays.
--The Tashlich Service at the Ocean just south of Pico (for letting go of resentments and opening up to a healthy new year) will be held along with a friendly luncheon gathering after Rosh Hashanah services at around 2 pm on Thursday September 9th. Please RSVP to Rita Reuben at firstname.lastname@example.org if you might be attending because the Rosenblatts will be preparing a beautiful lunch at their home near the beach and we need to make sure we get you a parking pass.
--The Break-the-Fast Dinner (for anyone who makes a reservation) will be immediately following Yom Kippur services on Saturday night September 18th at around 7 pm at Kehillat Maarav in Santa Monica. Please make sure you note on your ticket forms if you will be there for the break-the-fast dinner.