With the #Pope visiting the United States, and the Jewish High Holiday season in full swing, I wanted to share with you an article I wrote published in the Detroit Jewish News’ High Holiday edition.
Two days ago, my wonderful congregation spent 26 hours in intensive prayer, fasting and reflection. Prayer is hard work. It does not come easy. That is why I am thankful to those in the community – in my synagogue, and in yours, or maybe in your church, temple or mosque – who volunteer their time to learn how to lead prayer.
Have you ever led a prayer service? If so, how did you learn? Why did you decide to lead? Did it feel different than sitting in the pews? I’d love it if you comment below.
During the Middle Ages, an unknown cantor, humbled at the task of praying on behalf of the entire congregation so that God would inscribe them into the Book of Life, penned the prayer Hineini, meaning “Here I Am.”
Before the invention of the printing press, leaders of tefilot, or Jewish worship, carried the weighty responsibility of keeping an entire congregation engaged and focused.
Fast forward several centuries, and not much has changed. Although the words of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy are widely available in printed machzorim or even transmitted electronically onto large video screens, it is still the task of the leader to be the shaliach tzibbur (lit. “messenger of the community”) in shepherding today’s Jews through the most prayer-intensive time on the Jewish calendar in an increasingly secular society.
Throughout Metropolitan Detroit, many consider it an honor to volunteer leading services alongside professional clergy as an ultimate expression of contributing to the Jewish community.
Rachel Jacobson, 28, of Silver Spring, Md. each year returns to her hometown congregation of B’nei Israel in West Bloomfield to be with family and to lead various parts of services. Inspired from her years in Jerusalem learning from pioneering women leading tefilot in egalitarian congregations, she was one of the first female prayer leaders for the B’nei Israel during the high holidays.
“I never was formally trained to lead,” said Jacobson. “It is something I picked up over the years in school, at Camp Ramah, and living in many different Jewish communities. It is when I can do my best praying because I am not only responsible for my own davening, but for the congregation before me.”
Jacobson credits her singing ability to her school days performing in musicals, though it is not necessary to be able to carry a tune in order to lead tefilot. But just as in show business, services must go on, even when the prayer leader is sick.
“Sometimes I think God does not want me to daven,” Jacobson jokingly said, thinking about leading Rosh Hashanah services while fighting a cold. “It is moments like that when I really must remind myself that I am not up there (on the bimah) to sound pretty. I am an emissary of all the congregation’s tefilot to deliver them to God. That is what leading prayer is all about.”
When Clergy get sick, congregants step up
Last Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Norman Roman of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield found himself not on the bimah but in the hospital. It was then that the congregation showed its strength and proudest moments according to congregant Diane Siegel Di Vita of Northville, who helps coordinate monthly lay-led services at Kol Ami throughout the year. She said the entire executive board filled in to lead the services and deliver sermons under the facilitation of Cantor Tiffany Green. Rabbi Roman’s stepson Chad Rochkind delivered the Yom Kippur sermon.
“What happened at Kol Ami last year was very community affirming,” said Green. “It was important for our membership to see fellow members stepping up to the plate at a moment’s notice, and showed how they care for their community through their leadership,” said Green. “Leading prayers shapes and grows our small congregation. It shows that our members care about what happens here.”
In an effort to bring to his fellow congregants the meaningfulness of the season, Bruce Plisner, an active congregant at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, designed with Rabbi Mark Miller a one-hour text study for Yom Kippur afternoon that will focus on the central themes of the day: the sounds of the shofar, fasting, repentance and forgiveness.
Plisner, 68 of Farmington Hills, said that Jews for generations have recited prayers such as the Ashmamu and the Unetana Tokef but may not know their origin or significance. Through text study and rabbinical and contemporary commentaries, he hopes to enlighten the worshippers by offering them something less passive and more participatory.
“During Yom Kippur, we say certain prayers over and over again which few people understand what or why we are saying them,” said Plisner, who said he tries to get to services during the year as much as he can to usher and lead. “We thought it would be meaningful to take a different approach to reading about the prayers through rabbinical interpretation. We will also examine the tradition of fasting and through various texts, will explore who fasts and who is pardoned from fasting.”
In synagogues and temples that do not have a chazzan, rabbis such as Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield rely upon a deep core of capable and willing congregants to lead prayers. This year there will be some new Torah readers joining the ranks of volunteers, he said.
“Leading tefilot is a big part of our congregation’s culture,” Rubenstein said. “Leading gives people the opportunity to be invested and involved in congregational life. It makes services more enjoyable, not only for the High Holidays but throughout the entire year.”
A note came home in my son’s backpack to state that today, this Friday, the school would be celebrating “International Heritage Day.” Third through fifth grade in my town is a time when students study the cultures of many countries. My child this year studied the cultures of Egypt, Japan, Australia. In successive years they will study about China and ancient civilizations from Greece to Rome to the Inca and Mayan Indians in social studies.
As a culmination and celebration of all this international study, third graders in my son’s school were asked to wear a hat that represents the culture of their immigrant ancestry.
Like most self-respecting Ashkenazi Jews, my family has roots in Russia and Poland. And, if you want to find some real exotic roots in my family, I believe my paternal grandmother was from Vienna, Austria.
But the Polish and Russians never looked upon my ancestors as their fellow countrymen. We were just: Jews. Yids. Pretty much second class citizens. That’s why Jews from Poland and Russia came over in droves to the United States – for economic if not religious freedom.
In my house, we don’t have any connection to Russian or Polish culture. How we identify, ethnically, is through Jewish culture.
So, what hat to use? The Moroccans have the Fez. The Mexicans, the Sombrero and the French, the beret, the Italians have the Fedora (acually, my older son has taken up wearing the fedora because he is so very dapper).
So, this brings me back to the question: What country do we identify?
I should have just put a Yankee Doodle style hat on my son’s head. We are Americans. But are we something else as well? Is Judaism a people? A religion? A Culture?
With what other country do we identify?
I could have chosen an Israeli Kibbutznik style hat, but that would be so … 1950’s.
So outdated. And, as much love as we have for our spiritual homeland, we are not Israeli.
So of course, to show off our heritage, we selected this one.
A kippah, in the Bukharan style, that we purchased this winter in Jerusalem as we made our way to the Western Wall.
This is the hat of our heritage.
Growing up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Staten Island, as the Chanukkah song from Adam Sandler song goes, I was the only kid on the block without a Christmas tree. Our neighbors invited my family over for cake and tree decorating and we in turn invited them on Chanukkah to light our menorah, spin a dreidel and eat fried potato latkes.
Even back then I understood that Christmas was a big holiday, and Chanukkah was a minor Jewish one. But Christmas trees still left me with a feeling of being on the outside, my nose pressed to the frosted window.
A menorah, no matter how big, even the ones that the Chabad Lubavich movement lights, just can’t compete with the smell of fresh pine, the twinkling lights and the tinsel to a Jewish kid on Staten Island. I even had my secret Christmas tree fantasies. If I ever had a Christmas tree, it would be simple: just candy canes and white lights would hang off the branches of the Christmas tree of my dreams. And it would only be in my dreams, because I knew very well that there is no such thing as a Chanukkah bush.
I did have childhood associations with Sukkot, the eight-day autumn festival of Booths, because of Hebrew school. I made the standard paper sukkah chains and ate within the large sukkah of my synagogue. In fact, the first time I was ever asked on a date was in a sukkah. It was in the seventh grade and a classmate asked me to go roller skating at Skate Odyesy as our teacher, on Orthodox rabbi, continually shushed us as he attempted to recite kiddush, the blessing over the grape juice.
But because my family didn’t build a sukkah of our own, the holiday still felt remote to me. I didn’t have a sukkah to eat my bowl of breakfast cereal in, or sleep in.
Now, in adulthood, my family enjoys putting up a sukkah every autmn, and we have done so for eleven years. And because we have a family sukkah, I can now say why this celebration, one of the major holidays on the Jewish calendar, blows that overblown attention we give to that other holiday in December right out of the water. Why? Because a sukkah fulfills the Jewish Americans’ need to decorate a large, religious object with branches and lights and have social gatherings within or around it.
Sukkot is known in Hebrew as one of the “three legs” of Jewish holidays, one of the three times of the year when the ancient Israelites were commanded to make a pilgrimage by foot to Jerusalem. Imagine Israelites building one of these temporary huts and sleeping in their fields under a harvest moon.
This same harvest moon shines through the roof of our family sukkah on the first few nights as we feast and sing. After a month of self scrutiny, asking for forgiveness, and finally, fasting on Yom Kippur, sitting within the walls of a sukkah is like getting a hug from God and feeling His forgiveness, as one Chabad rabbi in my college years so eloquently explained it.
In my neighborhood, Sukkot is all around us. As we are finishing up our meal of brisket and sweet potatoes, our neighbor, an Orthodox rabbi, is starting his meal with his family within their sukkah. We can hear his voice as he joyfully sings the kiddush as we clear off our table. This is followed by the clanking of plates and the laughter of his grandchildren as they dine. This coming outside to eat, either in these formal meals or sukkah hopping later in the week may be the last chance we get before the long Rochester winter, makes our neighborhood just feel more neighborly.
How is a sukkah not like a Christmas tree? For one thing, Jews are commanded by God in Torah to build one to remind us of the booths that the Israelites lived in during their wandering in the desert after we were freed from Egypt. Plain and simple, it’s a mitzvah just to sit in a sukkah. I still don’t understand if there is a religious connection between a tree and the birth of Jesus, but I’d be happy to learn how this tradition got started.
So, now that it is December, I still admire Christmas trees, but with a knowledge and experience that the Jewish people have our time of year for our big celebrations with something to decorate and gather in. Come this Christmas, don’t feel bad for the Jewish people who have no Christmas tree. Instead, feel bad for the Jewish people who have not yet built, or ate, or slept, or dwelt in a Sukkah, back in September.