As many of the Jewish faith enter the month of Tishrei, some of the religion’s most important holidays — the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur — quickly approach.
Many of Riverdale’s synagogues will facilitate the rites and rituals associated with the holidays, with Rosh Hashana beginning at sundown Sept. 20.
Tishrei typically falls between September and October on the Gregorian calendar, and is the time of year when Rosh Hashana — or the Jewish new year — as well as the “Day of Atonement” of Yom Kippur are observed, beginning with the blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn said to evoke a spiritual awakening.
At Riverdale Temple, the community’s only congregation associated with the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Thomas Gardner said these holidays are a time of not just looking forward, but reflecting as well.
“We often go through life focused on the little things and important things, and we put the big things aside,” Gardner said. “The high holidays are a great way to put aside the little things. And if done right, it can be very powerful and spiritually moving.”
The High Holy Days also serve as a break for many of Riverdale’s Jewish and Non-Jewish residents alike, as public schools across the city are closed in observation. With recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which blatant anti-Semitism was expressed, the High Holy Days just might serve as the right time for connections across all faiths.
Non-Jewish residents, for example, can learn more about what these longstanding Jewish traditions mean for their neighbors, as they not only welcome in the year 5778 on the Jewish calendar, but also a day of fasting used in part to atone for misdeeds of the past year between mankind and God.
High Holy Days services draw such large crowds, synagogues typically have to issue tickets to ensure enough room for everyone. But even with important, well-attended holidays like this, Jewish temples continue to struggle attracting the younger generation — the millennials — as they, more and more, shy away from religion.
A 2015 Pew Research Center survey showed just 41 percent of millennials felt religion was very important, compared to 59 percent of baby boomers. While nearly 70 percent of the older generation now hitting retirement believes in God, among millennials, that number actually drops to just over half.
The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale however, one of Riverdale’s Orthodox synagogues, will provide a way for younger residents to learn about the High Holy Days. The synagogue offers a free explanatory prayer service in English during the afternoon of each of the High Holidays for those who wish to participate, said Richard Lagner, the Hebrew Institute’s executive director. Affordable access to the traditions can ensure growth and cultural retention in the community.
Services may differ from congregation to congregation, and sometimes even from congregant to congregant, Gardner said.
“In the orthodox tradition, the men and women don’t sit together,” he said. “In the conservative sect and reform sect, men and women sit together and have translations in English.”
Some of the popular rituals practiced during the High Holy Days include eating apples dipped in honey, symbolizing hope for a better year to come, and the eating of red pomegranates as the many seeds are thought to represent the commandments in the torah that those of the Jewish faith must fulfill.
Walking to a river or stream in new clothes, praying and afterward tossing pieces of bread into the water, represent the casting away of sin.
The High Holy Days for many of Riverdale’s residents will be a way of starting the new year on the right path, for older generations to pass on traditions to younger generations, and to help foster stronger community bonds. With education, plus increased awareness the role cultural institutions and rabbis and rabbas — a name for women leaders — play the Jewish tradition in Riverdale will thrive.
“The High Holidays did not always have the importance that they do now,” Gardner said. “They may have been sort of minor holidays associated with the agricultural cycle. But over time, they have gained significance, and the 10 Days of Awe, as they have come to be known, serve as a time of metaphorical birth and death.”
CLARIFICATION: Riverdale Temple is the only community synagogue affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, the primary governing body for Reform congregations in the country. Congregation Shaarei Shalom considers itself a Reform congregation, but is not part of URJ.