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Last of the Rabbis’ messages for the New Year (Greater MetroWest)
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Last of the Rabbis’ messages for the New Year (Greater MetroWest)

Leaders of area congregations share their High Holy Day thoughts

Note: This is the third, and final, installment of New Year’s greetings. 

A generous heart

THERE IS AN old joke told about a couple in Florida who stops to ask directions: “How do we get to 95?” The response is swift: “Don’t eat meat!”

Since creation, we human beings have been on a quest to discover the secrets of longevity. Every generation has its “ah-hah” moments that promote magical diets, exercise, meditation, and escape from the trials and tribulations that age us. Billions of dollars are spent each year testing new products and methods that claim to increase health and extend life. Yet, today there is still no pill or ingestible food that can do the impossible. But there are those who can teach us a great deal about making the most of our days and aging with purpose.

This Holy Day season exists to provide the time for proper attention and mindfulness to contemplate the gift of life and prepare to make the most of another new year. Therefore, it is most appropriate to share with you the story of Maurice Kaye, of blessed memory, who died this past month in England at the age of 106. He was married for 84 years to his wife, Helen, who is 105 years old.

It is not Maurice’s age alone that distinguished him, rather it was his attitudes and behaviors that are worthy of emulation. In reading comments about his life, there are recurring words that guide: warm, caring, generous. He was a participating member of the Jewish community, prayed each Shabbat, took an interest in people, was an active learner, and never stopped moving, giving of himself and his means while at the same time prioritizing family. He was not wealthy, but more importantly he was content and grateful with his lot. He knew heartache and loss, having buried two children, but he embraced hope and blessing.

Perhaps then, from Maurice, we learn that there is a real secret to extended and eternal life: living with a generous heart and spirit that will long be remembered beyond our physical years!  May we draw on Maurice’s inspiration and prepare to welcome the new year with gratitude for our blessings and hope in our hearts.

Rabbi Randi Musnitsky
Temple Har Shalom, Warren


Find your way in

ROSH HASHANAH and Yom Kippur, the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, the days when rabbinic tradition teaches that we celebrate the birthday of the world, are often the hardest days to find connection. We cannot assume that there is a single spiritual entry point on the High Holy Days. There are many ways to connect with God, our liturgy, our Torah, and our community. Our goal at Beth El this year was to create many entry points. We did that with intentional and inspiring worship with Cantor Galeet Dardashti and an alternative Kesher minyan led by Rabbi Rachel Marder. We also did that by celebrating the three pillars on which this world stands, offering opportunities for learning and action, in addition to prayer, throughout the High Holy Days.

But creating such entry points cannot be limited to a single holiday, cannot be limited to these holiest of days. To build an inclusive and welcoming community, a true kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, we must continue to offer entry points for education, spiritual, social, ritual, and activist connections. 

On each and every Shabbat and holiday, we begin by separating out holy time by lighting candles. When we end Shabbat, we again make a separation, but this time, with wicks intertwined the flickering flame of the Havdalah candle is greater than the smaller Shabbat candles. This is a reminder that it may be difficult to create a spark, but once there is a spark, that spark can quickly turn into a towering flame.

These days, the world feels upside down. It’s especially at those moments when we need to find a way in. It is at those moments, at this moment, at this time of year, when we need to wrestle with God. It is at this time of year when we need community. We believe that once you find that spark, it is easy for that spark to spread. Let us help you find that spark. Let us help you find your way in, however you find connection and community. For once you find your way in, you never know how far your spark will spread! Shanah tovah!

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky
Congregation Beth El, South Orange


Barrier-free

CONGREGATION BETH Hatikvah has chosen “Breaking down Barriers” as the theme to focus on for the coming year. We are inspired by the many ways we can interpret this idea. There are the barriers that keep us from connecting with people across race, religion, economic class, sexual orientation, or political views. There are the walls of resistance within ourselves to trying something new, considering different points of view, changing old, destructive habits. And there are also the ways we strive to create a community in which, as much as possible, we remove obstacles to entering, so no one feels uncomfortable or out of place because they don’t have enough knowledge about Judaism or because they don’t have friends or because they feel different in some way.

The theme “Breaking Down Barriers” is a call to action for each one of us. It requires that we ask hard questions: How can we reach beyond our comfort zones? How can we open ourselves to try what is new and
unfamiliar? How can we reach out to people across the lines that separate us? How can we be more welcoming?

In this New Year, may we hear the call to grow, to stretch, to reach across differences and create strong connections.

Rabbi Hannah Orden
Congregation Beth Hatikvah, Summit


Successful turning

“MOVING IN CIRCLES” is generally not a good thing. It implies going nowhere, making no progress. At best, going around in circles is repetitive, boring. It may be dizzying, sending us off-balance, or worse, “spinning” us out of control. For the author of “Kohelet,” which we traditionally read on Shabbat Sukkot, the world goes around in an endless cycle, and it is exhausting:

“One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever.

“The sun rises, and the sun sets — and glides back to where it rises.

“Southward blowing, turning northward, ever turning blows the wind; on its rounds the wind returns.

“All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place [from] which they flow the streams flow back again….

“Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occurs which has occurred; there is nothing new beneath the sun!” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-9)

However, moving in circles may actually be positive: an accomplished dancer can execute many turns in succession; a whirling dervish — so named because his meditative dance is a constant turning — might assert that only when he is turning in circles is he truly moving! And while repetition can be boring, it can also be reassuring: routine and regularity let us know what to expect. Moreover, repetition is often the way we learn, allowing our bodies to master a physical skill, or our mind to firmly grasp important information.

One of the meanings of the Hebrew root “shanah” is “to repeat”; at the New Year we wish each other a good “repetition.” Indeed, is this not the basic idea of the Yamim Nora’im, that we welcome the opportunity to behave better in the same situations this year? We want to be successful in our teshuvah — our turning!

Rabbi Charlie Popky
White Meadow Temple, Rockaway


Passing the test

IN JANUARY 2017, my wife and I took a trip to Royal Palm in Everglades National Park and happened upon a citizenship ceremony at which 60 or 70 people were taking the oath of citizenship. After a few speeches, the candidates for citizenship identified their countries of origin. Then, the oath was administered, and the new citizens received their certificates of citizenship and celebrated. It was very moving.

And my wife and I asked each other, could we pass the citizenship test? The immigration officer asks 10 questions from a list of 100, and you need to answer at least six correctly. Can everybody reading this message pass the citizenship test?

* Name the two longest rivers in the United States.

* What is the rule of law?

* How many senators are there?

* We elect a congressman for how many years?

* Describe one of the four constitutional amendments addressing voting.

Probably most of the people reading this message could pass the citizenship test cold, but we are not a representative body. We are probably more educated and probably more civically involved than the average American. We probably follow the news more closely and even listen to NPR.

But we are a representative body for a different kind of citizenship: Judaism. And how many of us could pass the Jewish citizenship test cold?

Now is the season when, for many of us, our Judaism is front and center. We take stock of ourselves. We reassess ourselves. We should, in addition to scrutinizing our spiritual well-being, scrutinize the whole of our Judaism. What Jewish history or Jewish culture do we know? What is our relationship to Israel? What makes us Jewish? What Jewish values do we cherish?

We confess our sins annually. We should ponder what makes us Jewish annually as well.

Rabbi Simon Rosenbach
Congregation Ahavas Sholom, Newark


Journey of tikkun

“We are plain quiet folk, and I have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, and uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner!” — Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien

TO BE A Jew, they say, is to be many things: part of an ancient people, witnesses to God’s presence, kibbitzers nonpareil with a humorous, cynical outlook that nevertheless celebrates human warmth and compassion; storytellers, dreamers who nevertheless poke fun at dreams; fervently hopeful, filled with yearning, always about to float off in ideals but striving always to keep both feet firmly on the ground; smiling through tears, endlessly curious and endlessly seeking — history’s asterisks.

But above all, to be a Jew is to be on an adventure that spans all human existence, that, for all of its descents into dark places, attests to the power of the light and the inexorable evolution of humanity toward God.

Now, within both the American-Jewish community and the Israeli-Jewish community and between those communities, there is more divisiveness than at any other time in my memory. Core values, human rights, societal visions all clash with such discord that we may despair that we will ever find our common ground.

The great adventure and challenge of our time, stretching over our history, is the journey of tikkun, of repair, to reforge our unity. To not do so is to fall once again into sinat chinam, the causeless hatred that has been our undoing since the beginning. We must tirelessly engage with each other, across all divisions and differences, with empathy, love, and, above all, the willingness to understand before we ask to be understood.

Jews we all are. Only when we truly live that truth will we reach the true beginning of our adventure and truly make it a year of goodness, blessing, and peace.

Rabbi Moshe Rudin
Adath Shalom, Parsippany


Touching lives

ASK YOURSELF the following questions:

1. Who are the last five best actor Oscar winners?

2. Who won in the Nobel Prize in physics in 2017?

3. Who are the five wealthiest persons in the world, in order of their wealth?

4. Who are five Olympic gold medalists from 1968?

Now, ask yourself to do the following:

1. Name the five best teachers you ever had.

2. Name two people who, at difficult times in your life, helped you.

3. Name five of the kindest persons you know.

4. Name the last person to pay you a compliment.

See what I did? Our society extols the wealthy, the famous, the accomplished, the celebrity. But fame is fleeting, wealth does not outlast us, and the honors and accolades eventually fade away. What is lasting is the impression we make on other people by our kindness, our caring, our concern.

Resolve this year to touch the lives of others, through goodness, compassion, and generosity. Rest assured, your deeds will be remembered for a lifetime.

Rabbi Douglas Sagal
Temple Emanu-El, Westfield


Tending the flock

THIS SUMMER we attended a county fair in New Jersey. Walking through the sheep pavilion, we were touched by the amount of care and love each sheep received. Each had a specially picked name. They were all shorn with incredible attention to detail. In looking at them you could see how much their attentive caregivers invested in their well-being.

During these High Holy Days we read U’netaneh Tokef, a haunting piyut (religious poem) that highlights the uncertain nature of our lives. In the midst of the piyut we read, “This day we all walk before you as a flock of sheep. And like a shepherd who tends to the flock … God numbers and accounts for each one.” When we think about our life journeys and our review, let us also think about the love shown each sheep at the fair. We may not know what the year ahead looks like, but we have God’s support nourishing and sustaining us on our journey. May our year ahead be one of joy, good health, and blessings.

Rabbi Rachel Schwartz and Rabbi Neil Tow
Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, Cranford


Our ancestral homeland

RABBI, I AM asked, why should I consider Israel my “home”? I am not a persecuted Jew fleeing my country of birth, nor am I contemplating aliyah from a life of freedom in the USA.

In honor of Israel at 70 years, we should distinguish between “home” and “homeland.”

I, too, regard America as “home.” I was born here, as were my parents and my mother’s parents. My loyalty and appreciation are clear. But part of being in this land of immigrants is recognizing the power and inspiration derived from my ancestral “homeland” — what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan described as “living in two
civilizations.”

When President John F. Kennedy — born in America, as were the two previous generations of his family — visited Ireland, he was filled with pride in connecting for the first time with his beloved ancestral homeland. So, too, was President Barack Obama, when he visited Kenya,
his father’s ancestral land.

An intense feeling of historic belonging arises when people reconnect with their ancestors’ physical address. I felt this rush of emotion, a sense of homecoming — or, should I say, “homeland-coming” — upon arriving in Israel in 1972, my first visit. When I boarded a bus in Jerusalem, a passenger offered me his seat. As a 23-year-old, I declined. But he said, “We have been saving this seat for you for 2,000 years.” Forty-four years later, at an archaeological dig in Israel, where we were celebrating my granddaughter Noa’s bat mitzvah, she unearthed shards of pottery from a 2,000-year-old Jewish civilization. We davened Maariv in the ruins of a Maccabean synagogue.

Only in Israel can these affirmations of my heritage come to the fore. To quote journalist Jane Eisner, Israel is “a living, breathing homeland connected to us through history and faith, one that we can engage and support and love.”

Rabbi Alan Silverstein
Congregation Agudath Israel, Caldwell


Source of All

SOURCE OF Time and Seasons,
Source of All that is.
We bow in awe and silence before You
May You crown the year with goodness.
God of Kindness and Mercy
May you grant us a good year ahead.

Source of Time and Seasons,
Source of All that is.
May you protect us and protect our planet
May You wipe out the wicked and respond to those in need
God of Justice and Righteousness,
May You grant us a good year ahead.

Source of Time and Seasons,
Source of All that is.
May You guide us on the right path
May You shield us from negativity and violence
May You hear the cries of those who suffer
God of Goodness and Light,
May You grant us a good year ahead.

Source of Time and Seasons,
Source of All that is.
We seek to dwell in Your home
We seek refuge in Your tent
God of Love and Peace,
May You Grant us a good year ahead: health, strength, prosperity, peace of mind, and heart Ken yehi ratzon! L’shanah tovah!

Rabbi and Maggidah Debra Smith
Or Ha Lev Jewish Renewal Congregation, Succasunna


Integration of self

AS WE APPROACH the New Year, we yearn for unity, but divisions abound. Everywhere we turn there are barriers of separation. The political divisions in America grow deeper. We are split on so many basic issues. Among our own Jewish people, there are rifts between Israel and the Diaspora, between religious and secular Jews.

The Machzor expresses a yearning for unity with great fervor: “Let everyone be united into one bundle to perform Your will with a complete heart.” We recite those words as part of every High Holy Day Amidah.

The unity we seek is not only on the outside; it is also on the inside. There are so many divisions within every human soul. We excel at “compartmentalization,” putting up walls within our hearts to separate conflicting emotions. Sometimes that is healthy; those psychic sieves allow us to function without being paralyzed by the paradoxes of inner dissent. But those fences that cut through the soul also prevent an integration of the truest parts of our “selves.” We all have dreams and aspirations, fears and insecurities. We carry sadness in one chamber of the heart, joy in another; hope in one place, despair in another. Anger and compassion, chaos and order, malaise and contentment, rationality and whim — all coexist in disparate corners of the soul.

At this season, we yearn for an integration of the self, in all its beautifully contradictory components, to create not a cacophony but a symphony unlike any other on earth. “Do I contradict myself?” asked Whitman. “Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” As we begin a New Year, both communally and individually, let us strive not for a negation but for an integration of opposites that will help us grow and become better.

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Spector
Temple Beth Shalom, Livingston


The greatest impact

THE HIGH HOLY DAYS is a time that is traditionally associated with introspection and inner reflection, but I find myself increasingly reflecting outward as well, and in particular on one specific question, and that is: With all that preoccupies us these days, individually and as a society, what will be of most concern to our children and our grandchildren when they are our age? When they read the headlines in the media, when they turn to their social media news feeds, what will be the preoccupation of the day?

And when they look back at the opening decades of this millennium, what will they deem to have been the truly important events and developments? Will it be about global warming, or the daily manifestations of our too-often-dysfunctional politics? Will it be about nuclear proliferation, the shifting dynamics of global leadership, or more about fake news and Twitter storms? What will turn out to have had the greatest impact on their everyday lives?

We tend to be overly focused on the daily gyrations of the here and now and not sufficiently on the critical longer-term trends playing out over time. And so it is worth pondering during these holidays how we can shift the focus of our own attention and that of our society and its leaders to what will be most important over time. “Hayom harat olam” — “Today the world stands as at birth.” Let us be guided by the eternal values that these holy days present to us, and may we renew a commitment to make this world a better place for the generations to follow.

Shanah tovah.

Cantor Steven Stern
Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah, Clark

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