Rosh Hashanah Reflections

I went to my first Rosh Hashanah services this weekend with E. As my previous post mentions, we choose the services at Georgetown which were, I guess, conservative in nature (Mixed seating, mostly in Hebrew, no acoustic guitars). The place was packed with students and families. A couple of observations on the holiday and services:

1. The majority of the service was in Hebrew, but the prayers books thankfully had translation. I’ll admit to not understanding much of what was going on. I understand the importance of Rosh Hashanah as celebration of the New Year, but the relationship of the specific prayers in the service to the holiday is something I definitely didn’t understand entirely.

This is not to say I wasn’t moved, I was, but more for the larger reasons I am often moved at Jewish ceremonies. The enormous history and tradition in these ceremonies is awe inspiring, that they have been carried on for so long in the face of such opposition is astounding, and the fact that young Jews like E and the many Georgetown undergrads who were at this ceremony, are committed to carrying on the traditions into the next generation is a testament to the power of the religion. That, and the use of a Torah scroll that had been hidden during the Holocaust and was now once again being used to celebrate the new year was as moving to me as any of the prayers.

2. People come late and leave early? I had no idea. I was really nervous about making sure to get there on time, but E told me not to worry, that many people would be late, and when we showed up, about half an hour late, she was right. The place was packed, but people continued to stream in for at least the next hour and then, with an hour or so left to go in the service, people started to leave. This does not happen in a Catholic Church.

3. The rabbi was clear, but his sermon wasn’t particularly inspiring. Twice he mentioned the Kabalistic interpretation of the reading, which in my ignorance, I found interesting. I thought Kaballah was a more fringe element in Judaism, but apparently not.

4. On Sunday, E and I couldn’t make it to services again, but we did do our own version of Tashlikh in Rock Creek Park. I know this is supposed to be done with a congregation, but at least we did it, and it was strangely beautiful praying together on the side of Rock Creek Parkway. I really enjoyed it.

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  1. Rachel

    The Hebrew will come. I have been studying for a year – it will suddenly ‘click’. If you can do a little every day (15 minutes) it will begin to work for you. If you are able to get to a weekly class, then that will really, really help. It is a beautiful language, very emotive and passionate. You will definitely get more out of the services if you can turn your hand to learning it.

    Sermons. Our rabbi writes the most awe-inspiring sermons you can imagine. She also instigated a once a month shiur (study) session tagged onto the sermon, where she digs into the parashah and really teases out the meaning and Hebrew. If you don’t feel good about the sermons after a while, try another shul for size. It’s got to feel right for you both.

    1. seanv2

      I love the idea of a attending a shiur. I am about to begin the conversion class next week, and I think for now I am going to just focus on learning he basics through the class and perhaps a small smattering of Hebrew (i.e. learning the alphabet!), I’ll save a more rigorous study of the language for after the conversion class is over.

      1. rachel

        That may be the best way – everybody is different. I studied Hebrew mostly on my own as I couldn’t get to shul after work in time for the start of the weekly classes. Then I studied with a friend who was born Jewish, but who’s Hebrew was almost non-existent. We got together once a week to read out loud from the siddur (prayerbook), which makes a great deal of difference, rather than just hearing how the words sound in your head! Now, we are on once a month classes, where we are digging into the grammar – and I can make these thankfully, as the rabbi is a fantastic linguist and teacher.

  2. seanv2

    E, my girlfriend is jewish and has decent Hebrew, she and I have been working on the alphabet a little here and there. Once I get a sense of how tough the class is going to be, I might try to jump into learning the language quicker.

  3. Hungry Hyaena

    Regarding the Kabbalistic interpretations that your rabbi incorporated, it’s my impression that mysticism is, in fact, resurgent among the liberal denominationas, and even among Orthodox rabbis. Granted, it is a decidedly process theology-oriented brand of mysticism. Voices like Rabbi Lawrence Troster and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner are influential popularizers of what could be described as neo-Chasidism.

    1. seanv2

      Interesting. My understanding is that Hasidism has been the main home for (serious) kabbalah study for the last hundred years, so it was interesting to hear a rabbi in a very academic and kinda traditional conservative setting weave it so naturally into his talk.

      I know less than nothing about kabbalah, but I very interested to hear more about this, and will look up Rabbis Troster and Kushner, thanks for the leads!

  4. Debbie B.

    Comment on “sermons”:

    Since my minyanim are lay-led, a different person gives the D’var Torah (which is not really the same thing as a “sermon”) every week. Interestingly enough, now that I think of it, although both minyanim have some ordained rabbis as regular members (they are chaplains, a director of a Jewish summer camp, principals/rabbis of Jewish day schools, etc), if anything, those members with actual rabbinical training are less likely to give a D’var Torah than some of the other members. One minyan used to have a member who is a Jewish studies professor (he left the area for a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary) who used to give a fair number of quite interesting talks. We were privileged to to hear in advance some of the material in his recently published book, for example. But the people who speak have many different backgrounds and give different talks accordingly. Here’s a book that is a compilation of dvrei Torah of my primary minyan:

    1. seanv2

      Sounds like a really interesting group, and thanks for the link to the book!

  5. Hungry Hyaena

    Debbie B., truly, from the comments of yours I’ve read here and at the JBC site, it seems that you have an exceptional minyan! May I, one day, be so fortunate.

    1. Debbie B.

      My minyan is indeed a very wonderful group. It is a very supportive community. When we had only been members for about two years, and my kids were one and four, I suddenly ended up in the hospital for a week due to a ruptured appendix. We had just moved into a new house and hadn’t even unpacked most of the boxes. Our minyan came to our aid : They babysat, brought food, the members who were doctors paid me a bikur cholim visit while on their rounds, and one member even did about four loads of laundry for us because we did not have a working washer and dryer set up due to the move. This is why when my younger child has graduated from high school, we will probably move to within walking distance of that minyan. We currently live about 4 miles away from the building the minyan has services in. Right now we are within easy walking distance (.5 mile) of what I call our “secondary” minyan: a similar lay-led minyan that is a bit too small to be viable in the long run with only just over two dozen adult members.

      However, you cannot be a drop-in or High Holiday Jew in this kind of congregation. Membership is cheap compared to most local synagogues, but that’s because we have no paid clergy or staff besides a babysitter. Members have to do *everything*. About once or twice a year our family has too coordinate services which means lining up 7 Torah readers, a Haftarah reader, leaders for P’sukei D’zimra, Shacharit, and Musaf, and someone to give the D’var Torah, and two Gabbaim. Then during services hand out honors: 7 aliyot, open/close ark, hagbah and gelilah. And coordinating would be really hard if you don’t attend services on a regular basis to get to know everyone and what they can or can’t do, who’s a Cohen, etc. A couple of times a year we have to bring in snacks for kiddush and do the kiddush set-up and clean-up (with other members helping, of course). And a couple of times a year we have “gan” duty to help look after younger kids during services (we have one paid babysitter for the youngest kids). And of course, most members are doing all the parts listed above according to ability. Because I love both our minyanim, I am happy to do all the above duties, but it does take a level of commitment that is not for everyone.

      A negative for us is that since most minyan families send their kids to Jewish day school, the minyan has no Hebrew school. It used to have a USY youth group, but there aren’t enough kids for that these days. Since our kids attend public school, we joined another synagogue in addition to our minyan for the Hebrew school (and thus became members of our secondary minyan) and have also used private tutoring and lots of work on our part as parents to give our kids the Jewish education we want.

      But if not for our minyan I could not imagine my family would have gotten to our current level of observance nor could I or my children have developed the deep love of Jewish ritual that we have. And it enhanced my husband’s Jewish commitment too.

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