During the Days of Awe, which begin with Rosh Hashanah and conclude with Yom Kippur, it is believed that the Book of Life is opened, and Jews are encouraged to make self-improvements and atone for their sins.
J. asked readers to share their personal stories of High Holy Days inspiration — and here are a few of them.
Starting a new life
Susan Leff began having pre-labor contractions on the drive to Kol Nidre services two years ago.
“My husband was more concerned than I was,” Leff said. “He asked me, ‘Should we go home? Should we go to the hospital?’
“But for some reason I knew everything was going to be OK. I told him, ‘We should go to shul.’”
Brad and Susan arrived at the Herbst Theatre for Congregation Sha’ar Zahav’s Kol Nidre service, ready to sing and pray and reflect upon the previous year and their hopes for the coming year.
Leff was pregnant with her first child. As she sat in the theater and listened to the choir, her baby’s movements grew stronger, making her feel like she had a roller coaster in her gut. It felt as if the baby was responding to the melodies and crescendos.
Leff had always observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but never before had she felt so awestruck by the power of life.
“I felt very connected to the baby, very connected to God, and very connected to my community in a way I had never felt before,” she said. “To feel a life moving inside of you while thinking about life itself was really earth-shattering for me.”
Frank was born five days later, on Sept. 26 at 2:41 a.m. He loves music and loves to sing, and Leff imagines that “no doubt, he’s a future member of the Congregation Sha’ar Zahav High Holy Days choir.”
This year, she is again pregnant, and the baby is due Monday, Sept. 28 — on Yom Kippur.
“It’s a beautiful time to have a baby,” she said.
She suspects she’ll spend a lot of time in services this year thinking about teshuvah, which means “to return,” and refers to the process of returning to a more righteous, generous or thoughtful way of life.
“There are times when you’re not the parent, spouse or person you want to be,” she said. “But we have to look at those things and realize that children are very forgiving, God and community are very forgiving, and we have to forgive ourselves to evolve and become the person we want to be.
“That’s what I’m looking forward to – but who knows, maybe I’ll be in labor.”
Reconnecting to his roots
Jonathan Furst had entirely rejected Judaism and hadn’t been to a synagogue in a decade when, on a whim, he decided to go to an Erev Rosh Hashanah service.
It was revelatory.
“I had just moved to San Francisco, and I don’t know – something told me, ‘Go,’ ” he recalled.
Furst grew up in a Conservative Jewish household in Tuscon, Ariz., and was excited by and involved in Judaism until his bar mitzvah.
“After that, I realized religion, at least the way I had been taught it, made me very self-righteous and judgmental, and so I wanted to have nothing to do with [Judaism],” Furst said. “The Judaism I grew up with had no meaning for me.”
But the service led by members of the independent Keneset HaLev–Community of the Heart was nothing like he had ever experienced. He maybe even liked it.
Jews were singing, standing, dancing, playing guitars and drums. They looked anything but bored.
“It was this joyous thing, and I thought, ‘These are Jews? This is the High Holy Days?’” he recalled. “It really connected me back to my roots.”
Furst enjoyed himself so much that he went back the next day for the daytime service, went to Ocean Beach for tashlich and returned for Yom Kippur services.
Teshuvah, or returning, suddenly had tangible meaning for Furst.
That was 15 years ago. Since then, Furst has gradually “returned” to the Jewish life he once left behind. He started by going to occasional Shabbat services. Soon he learned how to lay tefillin and eventually began studying Torah.
“I started to bring Shabbat wherever I’d go,” he said. “For my friends, who were divorced from Judaism, I’d say, ‘Let’s do Shabbat’ … When they started calling me their rebbe, which I wasn’t, I realized, ‘Maybe this is what I’m meant to be doing.’”
He traveled to Israel six years ago to begin training to be a maggid, a Jewish spiritual leader and storyteller. Since then, he’s served as maggid where his Jewish journey began, at Keneset HaLev.
He has led High Holy Day services for the past six years. Services include Jewish khirtan (call and response chanting), meditation and traditional Jewish prayers.
“It feels wonderful to serve the community that brought me back to Judaism,” Furst said.
‘A time of new beginnings’
The prayer Avinu Malkeinu at Rosh Hashanah services inspired Carrie Rice to do what she had not done as a 13-year-old — have a bat mitzvah.
In 2006, at age 33, Rice sat in Congregation Sherith Israel’s ornate sanctuary and let the prayer wash over her.
“It’s such a haunting melody,” she said. “But something was missing, because I couldn’t read it and I didn’t understand it. I wanted to not only enjoy it but also process it more fully.”
Rice grew up in a culturally Jewish but wholly unreligious household. She had never attended a High Holy Day service until she started working as a clergy assistant at Sherith Israel in 2003.
Even though she was surrounded by rabbis and lay leaders and immersed in Jewish life at the synagogue, “I never felt like an adult in the community,” she said.
Being in a synagogue for Rosh Hashanah helped Rice to realize there was a simple — though demanding — solution: She could have an adult bat mitzvah.
“I enjoyed services but I didn’t feel competent,” she said. “I’ve since learned that no Jew ever feels fully competent.”
In January 2007, Rice and seven other congregants began their yearlong b’nai mitzvah class. They learned the alef-bet, studied Torah, explored Jewish rituals, delved into kabbalah and wrote ethical wills.
After weekly classes for a year, the eight students stood on the bimah and joined the Jewish community as full-fledged adults.
Rice thought about the moment she first decided to become a bat mitzvah, and how much more knowledgeable and empowered she felt having spent a year studying.
Finally, she was comfortable in a tallit and unafraid to hold the Torah.
“Touching the Torah with the yad, I thought, ‘Oh my God, people have been doing this for thousands of years, and now I’m doing it,’” said Rice, now the membership director at Sherith Israel. “And not just these eight people, not just San Francisco, but the whole world, and all the generations.”
Several months later, she had another Rosh Hashanah revelation. Her father, who had smoked for many years, had a lung removed just two months before the Jewish New Year.
Rice, an occasional smoker, set a deadline for herself. She would quit smoking thatyear, on Rosh Hashanah. And she did.
“To me, Rosh Hashanah is a time of new beginnings, a time to hit the reset button, and it seemed like the right time to [quit smoking],” she said. “Helping my health, taking care of my body and my soul, to me, those are all Jewish values, because trying to become a better person in this lifetime is in itself Jewish.”
Retiring and rewiring
The second intifada cast a dark cloud over Glen Hauer’s Yom Kippur.
But it ultimately exposed some light in his life.
“I had a searching look at myself as a Jew and at my community here,” Hauer said of his High Holy Day experience in 2000, just days after a wave of violence swept the Middle East.
“I decided that I would take responsibility for changing that situation,” he said.
Then 43, the Berkeley resident had spent the past 15 years working as an appellate attorney, where he represented indigent offenders appealing their cases to higher courts. He enjoyed the work and was invigorated when a client won an appeal or a case he worked set a precedent.
“My own life was meaningful, but not meaningful enough for me,” he reflected.
He wondered: Could his energy be more useful if directed elsewhere?
He meditated on this question as fellow worshippers at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav began to sing the Vidui, the prayer during which people put their fist to their chest and take responsibility for the entire community’s mistakes and shortcomings.
“I took it very seriously,” Hauer said. “And that was the occasion I decided to change the focus of my life.”
A few months later, he had wrapped up work on all of his cases and retired from law.
Hauer threw his time and energy into growing Jewish Voice for Peace, a left-wing group dedicated to Palestinian human rights and ending the Israeli presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. At the time JVP was just a fledgling organization that met in people’s living rooms in San Francisco and the East Bay.
He became a founding board member, helped hire the organization’s first paid staff and over the years has worked on JVP campaigns that have turned a regional organization into one with a national presence.
“It’s impossible for me to know if I would have taken the same path had I not been at those services,” Hauer said.
He still attends High Holy Day services at Sha’ar Zahav, and each year on Yom Kippur he is reminded of the “potent liturgy of looking searchingly at ourselves and our people,” he said.
“But nothing has quite moved me as that one time did.”
Hauer is still not quite sure how the prayers moved him so much. He often struggles with Jewish liturgy, and doesn’t always understand the Hebrew prayers he sings aloud.
Nonetheless, in 2000, he was paying attention. And every year since he tries to do the same.
Yom Kippur prayers “are a call to look for what’s possible, and to not give up,” Hauer said. “Too often we don’t look at a situation from the perspective of what’s possible. We feel discouragement daily, we feel too small to make a difference, and that can muddy the waters about how significant each of us is, and the enormous effect our decisions have on ourselves and the world.”