In the summer of 2013, I left a wonderful congregation in North Carolina to pursue an exciting opportunity on the staff of Gann Academy in Massachusetts. Many of the rabbis I work with at Gann Academy take on added responsibilities during the High Holy Days, helping out at Hillels, chavurot, and synagogues in the Boston area. As we swapped sermon ideas and commiserated over cantillation, my colleagues were surprised to learn that I’d be spending the holidays with Temple Emanu-El of Longview, Texas as part of the ISJL’s “Rabbis on the Road” program.
Though I am familiar with the South, even I wasn’t sure what to expect from a community that would fly in a rabbi from 1,700 miles away, sight unseen, to lead their High Holy Day services. As I left the airport, speeding down Route 20 from Dallas, Kol Nidre playing on the rental car stereo, I realized that, for the first time, I was leading the entire High Holy Day service, and I had no idea what the minhag ha-makom [local custom] was in East Texas.
As soon as I arrived in Longview, however, I found everything I could have hoped for in a community: open and supportive, warm and welcoming. And in addition to the southern hospitality I’d been missing in Boston, I discovered one of the most dedicated collections of lay leaders I have ever encountered.
Though the Jewish population of Longview has dwindled over the years, a small cadre of dedicated families has maintained their synagogue both physically and spiritually. The temple building is not only immaculately kept, but also frequently put to use. While rabbinical leadership has diminished from full-time to biweekly to occasional visits from the ISJL, Temple Emanu-El continues to hold lay-led Shabbat services and dinners nearly every week.
Temple Emanu-El doesn’t just serve the longstanding members of the Longview community. As the only synagogue in a 40-mile radius, Jews – and the many, many local friends of the Jewish community – came in from the surrounding communities of Marshall and Kilgore. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I noticed young couples, new to town and far from home, joining the community for the first time.
Many families had a tradition of inviting their children and grandchildren to spend one of the holidays with them, and more than one family had three generations present at our Yom Kippur service. Practically every synagogue I’ve been to offers separate programming for children, so I was curious as to what the young people would get out of the service. Would they be bored? How would they respond to a worship experience that was not designed for them?
There were some naps, and yes, there were some meltdowns. But there were also helpers at Havdallah, Judaic crayon art created during the sermons, and exuberant demonstrations of cheer routines during the break-fast. Instead of feeling like the rabbi of a very small congregation, I started to feel like a member of a very large family.
My favorite moment of my visit was when, at the end of the Kol Nidre service, at nearly ten o’clock in the evening and following a lengthy, aimed-at-adults sermon, two young sisters shyly approached the bimah, nudging each other and whispering.
“You tell her!”
“No, you tell her.”
Finally, one of them said, “In part of your sermon, you were talking about Jonah, but you said Noah.”
So, they were paying attention…
Celebrating the holidays with Temple Emanu-El certainly kept me on my toes. It also showcased the dedication, commitment, and attention to detail of a community I might not otherwise have had a chance to meet. I headed home feeling that the Jewish future is in good hands. And that’s a great way to start the New Year.
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On Yom Kippur, we atone; on Yom Kippur, may we be at one.
From South to North, East to West, Jews will seek forgiveness and re-commit communally to doing better in the year ahead. As an organization, we too re-commit to an even better year ahead. May we always be good partners, always strive to meet the needs of those we serve, and be part of building a better world.
On this Day of Atonement, we wish all who are fasting a fast that is both easy and meaningful. G’mar chatima tovah.
Confession: I’m still kind of a Yom Kippur rookie.
Yom Kippur has always been a mystery to me. I am from a household of two Jewish parents, but we were not an observant family. The most we did for the High Holidays was having my grandparents over for dinner. I knew Rosh Hashanah was the Jewish New Year, but I did not understand that there was an entire Jewish calendar, and my parents never even approached the subject of Yom Kippur.
Growing up, I always knew I was Jewish, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I started to learn more about Judaism when I was in college. I sought out the Jewish community and met great friends and also learned a lot about being Jewish. Now, I am living in Jackson, Mississippi, working for a Jewish organization, figuring out my own Jewish observance and traditions—and still trying to figure out Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur gets a bad rap. We go from indulging in delicious food on Rosh Hashanah to fasting on Yom Kippur—kind of a downer. We go from celebrating to apologizing, from “Happy New Year” to “here’s everything we did wrong last year.” So this year, I wanted to try to figure out what Yom Kippur really means, but mostly, what it really means to me.
So I took a survey. I went around the office at the ISJL asking my fellow Education and Community Engagement Fellows to explain the point of Yom Kippur. The best answer I got was that it marks a period of transition. Like the secular New Year, people make resolutions and promises about how they will do better in the coming year. However, Yom Kippur is not only about looking forward to a bright future; it is also about reflecting on your past.
We spend 10 days in flux and get to think about big questions like:
- “What could I have done better this past year?”
- “Am I where I want to be in life?”
- “How have I changed during this past year?”
It is a time to check in with yourself, to not only make sure that you are doing what makes you happy, but also that you are doing good in the world.
- When was your last random act of kindness?
- When was the last time you volunteered?
- How are you going to give back in the coming year?
I find the best way to grow as a person is by giving back to the communities that have helped me along my own path. Before taking on this new perspective, I had a hard time understanding a holiday where we were supposed to think about all of the bad things we’ve done over the year and feel sorry about them. Now, I am excited to think about Yom Kippur as a time for personal reflection. I am going to sit down and make some goals for the next year, but also reflect on all that I learned, accomplished, and struggled with in 5774.
As of now, I’ve started to think about Yom Kippur like a Yoga class. At the beginning of each class, you set your intention, and I want to go through 5775 intentionally. I will think about what has changed me in the past year, and how that has helped me grow. I will think about how I can contribute to my community on both local and global scales. I will use these reflections to make a plan for how I would like to continue to grow in the future. Maybe this will become my tradition, or maybe my relationship with Yom Kippur will continue to evolve—either way, I’m already starting to understand it a bit better.