Jewish Holidays and Practices
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[The following originally appeared on the blog of Mayyim Hayyim, an intimate center for spirituality, learning, celebration and community.]
For those who choose it, conversion is a liminal experience. While it might sound clichĂ© or hackneyed, it can be a life-changing event. And that is the way it is supposed to be. I like to say that there are two steps in the process of conversion. (Like a dance, I call it the â€śconversion two step.â€ť) The first step is the conversion of the body. The second is the conversion of the heart or spirit. I can control the former. No one can control the latter. Sometimes one comes before the other. And at other times, they occur simultaneously. Of one thing I am sure. Without a supportive and welcoming Jewish community, the latter is really hard to come by.
This summer, a friend gave me a copy of Joan Nathanâ€™s Jewish Holiday Cookbook. Organized by holiday, the cookbook is a fantastic guide for anyone preparing a Jewish holiday meal. At JOI, we know, of course, that todayâ€™s Jewish community includes individuals who are not Jewish themselves â€“ yet who prepare Jewish meals for their families. It can be a challenging experience, so we were excited to read an article by Joan Nathan in which she recognized the important role of people of other backgrounds in the Jewish holiday kitchen.
Some people consider September to be a lost month. One Jewish holiday after another. What were those Rabbis thinking? So many holidays grouped together and then none the following month. How is anyone supposed to work during this month and get anything accomplished? But then it got me to thinking. I wondered why Rosh Hashanah — the celebration marking the New Year — came before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It seems counterintuitive. Yom Kippur is a time during which one repents for oneâ€™s wrongdoing and tries to steer the course of oneâ€™s life to a more sacred purpose. One might expect the introspection and self-reflection of Yom Kippur to precede the New Year rather than follow it.
The holidays, though, donâ€™t stop with Yom Kippur. There are many more holidays to come, all within the following two weeks. After Yom Kippur is Sukkot, the festival of booths, which leads to Shemini Atzeret, a day of assembly, which leads to Simchat Torah, a day to rejoice in the Torah. Whatâ€™s the purpose of so many holidays, compressed into just a few weeks?
The holiday of Sukkot begins Wednesday at sundown, and Jewish families all over the world will be putting up their sukkot (temporary booths) to celebrate the holiday. In New York City, this festival has been taken to new heights by the nonprofit organization Reboot, which has organized a display of a dozen innovate sukkot in Union Square. To read more about this display, called â€śSukkah City,â€ť click here.
Sukkot is a holiday that meshes nicely with JOIâ€™s values of Public Space Judaism and bringing Jewish practice into the public sphere. A sukkah can be built almost anywhere, and is by definition temporary and easy to build. And as a result, many different organizations put the principles of Public Space Judaism into practice during Sukkot. Chabad builds sukkot on the backs of flatbed trucks and Home Depot holds sukkah making demonstrations in order to bring the holiday to where Jews are. The â€śSukkah Cityâ€ť display is in keeping with this tradition. It is held in one of the busiest public spaces in New York City, enabling thousands of Jews â€“ affiliated and unaffiliated â€“ to interact with the booths as they go about their day.
This is the time of year when folks take stock of their lives. The Hebrew term is cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally, an accounting of the soul. But it is also a time for taking a hard look at the community and where it is going. Just as it is difficult to honestly assess the self, it is similarly quite difficult to brutally confront the stark reality of the Jewish communityâ€”its strengths and weaknesses. But if we want to enter the New Year emboldened to face the challenges we will undoubtedly encounter, we have to be prepared.
When John Naisbitt wrote his bestselling Megatrends in 1988, it seemed that the trends he identified were in fact sweeping the country. Moreover, the notion of a megatrend became very important in planning for community futures, especially in the Jewish community. But when Mark Penn and Kinney Zalesne penned their Microtrends 20 years later, things had changed drastically. Sure, the trends were different. But so were the nature of the trends. Micro replaced macro. No longer were there major sweeps. Instead, small trends seemed to dominate. In other words, two diametrically opposed trends can coexist. One does not eclipse the other.
So what does this mean for the Jewish community?
In the most recent issue of the Forward, the paper asked many prominent rabbis and thinkers to share what they believe we as a community need to atone for this Yom Kippur (which begins this Friday night, Sept. 17). One that immediately jumped out at us was written by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who believes we should atone â€śfor the sin of writing off the intermarried.â€ť He writes that instead of viewing all those who intermarry as â€śtrying to escape their Jewishness,â€ť we should turn the tables. â€śWe would do well to see intermarriage more as a doorway that can lead into Judaism than a doorway leading out.â€ť
Almost ten years ago, we used the same message in a holiday card and received many angry responses, but our conviction never wavered.
Each year we see an increasing number of news articles covering the growing phenomenon of free High Holiday services. Thatâ€™s because more and more synagogues and other Jewish organizations are recognizing that the â€śpay-to-prayâ€ť model can no longer serve as the only option, if we hope to provide meaning at the holiday time for all who would join us. Itâ€™s exciting to see an increasing number of free and low-cost options for those who are not yet fully on the inside of the community.
And yet, how do we measure success of these free High Holiday offerings? Certainly, a well-attended service that people feel good about is a positive result, in and of itself. If such programs really do provide people with the meaning and/or spirituality that theyâ€™re seeking, though, another important measure of success would be that we on the inside of the organized Jewish community wonâ€™t have to wait another full year to see these folks return!
Grandparents Day is today, September 12th. Founded in 1973 by Marian McQuade, a housewife in Fayette County, West Virginia, this holiday seeks to honor the wisdom and contributions of grandparents. In honor of the occasion, we have created a card that celebrates grandparentsâ€™ efforts to nurture the Jewish identity of their grandchildren. The card as a token of JOIâ€™s appreciation for all of the hard work by Jewish grandparents with interfaith grandchildren, and feel free to forward it to anyone else that you think might enjoy it. Happy Grandparents Day!
The High Holidays begin tonight with Rosh Hashanah, and many synagogues around the country are preparing for the massive influx of worshippers to come through their doors. But for the growing number of non-Jewish spouses who will be joining their Jewish partner at services, little is done to ensure they feel welcome and able to participate. Writing for the online publication On Faith (a project of the Washington Post), JOI executive director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky offers some suggestions for what we can do to help lower barriers for all newcomers.
The High Holidays are right around the corner, and synagogues all over the country are preparing for the annual influx of worshippers. At many synagogues, a ticketing model comes standard for the High Holidays, and worshippers must pay to attend services. However, as this article in the Forward notes, an increasing number of synagogues throughout the country are shifting to a cost-free High Holiday services model, with promising results.
With the coming array of Jewish holidays â€“ beginning with Rosh Hashanah on the 8th of September and ending with Simchat Torah on Oct. 1 â€“ many Jewish families will be spending a lot of time at two places: synagogue and the dinner table. But the â€śsweetestâ€ť meal comes on Rosh Hashanah, in which it is customary to eat sweet foods to celebrate the beginning of a joyous new year. Rabbi Jason Miller, a member of the JOI Professional Advisory Board, recently visited the Fox News affiliate in his hometown of Detroit to talk about the holiday and share his recipe for a traditional Rosh Hashanah dessert, honey cake. Click here to watch his appearance; the website also provides his recipe.