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Jewish Journal

Turning Toward the High Holy Days

by Susan Esther Barnes

September 12, 2012 | 8:00 am

The Union for Reform Judaism High Holy Days poster

Some say there are no seasons in California. But for those of us who live by the Jewish calendar, the holidays keep us grounded in the turning of the planet.

It always starts somewhere near the end of summer. Somehow, the approach of the High Holy Days gets mentioned. Sometimes it’s just the beginning of the month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. Sometimes, it’s the holiday videos on Facebook. This year, it was an advertisement inviting congregants to send a jar of honey to friends and family for the holidays. Regardless of how it’s first mentioned, my reaction is, invariably, “But I’m not ready!”

And that is, you see, exactly the point.

In a land where there is no shofar blowing at the appointed times, these signs become my wake-up call: “The High Holy Days are coming, and you are not ready. It is time to prepare.”

But how to prepare?

First, we have S’lichot services, to get us thinking in the right direction.

Next, I find myself copy-editing the synagogue’s memorial roll. It is a list of the congregation’s loved ones, which is passed out at High Holy Days services, and a copy of which is kept in the ark with the Torah scrolls throughout the following year. I check the names carefully, making sure none are missing, none are misspelled, none are out of order. It is a way to care for the dead, as well as the living. It makes me reflect especially on those who stood with us at Rosh Hashanah last year, but will who not be there this year.

I take out my small portion of the list of current congregants, and begin to make my phone calls. “Hello,” I say, “this is Susan Barnes from the synagogue. I’m calling to wish you a Shana Tova.”
If it’s a long-time congregant, they often say something like, “Thanks, you too.”

If it’s a newer member, there’s usually a pregnant pause as, I imagine, they wait for me to ask them for money. “That’s it,” I offer, “That’s all I called to say,” to which the usual response is one of surprise and delight.

The goal is for every congregant to receive two calls like this a year – one before Rosh Hashanah, and one before Passover. Because I receive the households I call at random, it helps me feel connected to people I don’t know. I can still name some of the people who sought me out to introduce themselves in person after the call. It reminds me to be thankful for what an amazing community we have.

This week, I get a surprise in my email box. I receive the list of answers I gave to questions asked by 10Q during the High Holy Days last year, which is the first time I participated in it. They asked one question a day for each of the 10 Days of Awe, which I answered online, privately. The question for day 10 was,” When September 2012 rolls around and you receive your answers to your 10Q questions, how do you think you'll feel?” I responded, “Disappointed.”

I was wrong. Instead, my answers made me think about how far I’ve come in the last year, the many challenges my husband and I faced in the past year, and how well we have gotten through them.

Lastly, I sit down with my husband to go over “The List.” This is a tradition we started before we were married. The first such conversation between us is actually what convinced me to start dating him. Some time in the week before Rosh Hashanah we go over anything that has happened in the past year for which we feel we need to apologize, or for which we feel the other person needs to apologize.

The real beauty of this tradition is that, throughout the year, it reminds us to apologize to each other in the moment, rather than putting it off. “I don’t want this to end up on The List,” one of us will say, as we check to make sure we have successfully made amends.

And then suddenly, almost magically, as the last days before Rosh Hashanah approach, I realize I am ready. I have reviewed the year and my part in it. I have considered what I did well, and what I want to improve. I have reminded myself of many of the things for which I am grateful. And I am ready to stand before God, in the midst of my congregation, and to ask for forgiveness.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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