Rabbis’ messages for the New Year: Heart of NJ

Rabbis’ messages for the New Year: Heart of NJ

The following are responses to an invitation from New Jersey Jewish News to leaders of area congregations to share their High Holy Day messages:

Upward bound

IN DEVARIM 30:19 we are commanded to use the God-given power of free will to choose life. “I have set before you the blessing and the curse; choose life.” 

However, there are times when we do not utilize this great gift. Instead of responding logically and constructively to various situations, we react instinctively, as if we had no choice in the matter. For example, one may think: “Whenever someone criticizes me, I feel like a total failure and brood about it for hours.” We might think that such responses are “natural” and unavoidable, and that we cannot help but react as we did. But this implies that we are more like robots than free-willed human beings. 

When we give people, places, and things the power to pull us into a state of negativity, then we have at that moment given away our independence and our power of choice. To break these automatic habit patterns, it is necessary to identify them and to work at developing the intellectual and emotional honesty that is necessary for growth. Then we regain our free will.

Imagine two escalators in front of you. The first leads upward to an elevated existence: happiness, inspiration, purpose, goodness, etc. The second leads down a slippery slope toward nihilism and self-destruction.

We need to be involved daily in mitzvot and good deeds and get on the upward-bound escalator using our free will to choose life. Shana Tova u’m’tuka.

Rabbi David Bassous
Congregation Etz Ahaim
Highland Park 



‘Come together right now’ 

ONE OF THE secrets of the High Holy Days is the power of Jewish unity. Standing before God alone should be frightening and petrifying. Rather we choose to stand before God as a member of his people. 

That idea is beautifully expressed by one of my favorite stories. 

There was a young child reading the Torah who noticed that the name of God (Adoshem) was abbreviated using two Hebrew yuds. The child noticed that that there was only one yud in God’s four-letter name and asked the teacher why the tradition had chosen these two letters to represent God’s name. 

The teacher smiled and replied: When two Yids (Yiddish for Jews) come together, they can bring God into the world. But when the Yids are divided, all you have are two lonely Yids!

Let this be a year when each of our synagogues experiences a sense of unity and friendship. Let this be a year when our local Jewish communities experience that same unity on a communal level. 

And let this be a year when we truly feel a sense of unity amongst the entirety of the Jewish people. 

We fervently pray that the power of our united communal prayers will protect the State of Israel, her citizens, and Jews throughout the world. 

With best wishes for a year of health, happiness, prosperity, and spiritual growth, 

Rabbi Nasanayl Braun
Congregation Brothers of Israel
Long Branch



Understanding and tolerance 

AS WE WELCOME in the New Year of 5776, we remain very concerned for our fellow Jews in Israel. The Jewish state continues to face great challenges from both external and internal threats.

As of this writing, Congress continues to review the Iran agreement. There are many opinions about the Iran deal, and good people can and do disagree. Yet, as the discussion continues, let us come together in supporting our Jewish state. We ask God to watch over Israel and provide her with peace.

Earlier this summer we were shocked and deeply saddened to read of two acts of violence. An Israeli Jew stabbed six people at the Jerusalem Pride Parade and a 16-year-old girl died. Then within 24 hours, an arson attack took place at a home in the West Bank and a Palestinian toddler died and his family was injured. 

We are heartbroken by these acts of violence. The rabbis taught that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to sinat hinam, senseless violence. For our Jewish state to remain strong, Israel must be a place where acceptance overcomes fear and where disagreement does not degrade into violence.

At this time of concern for our Jewish state, let us pray for the safety and security of Israel. And let us pray for understanding and tolerance, so that all Jews, and all Israelis, may live in peace. 

L’shana tova — May you and your loved ones be blessed with a year of joy and peace. 

Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer
Temple B’nai Shalom
East Brunswick



Blast from the past

EVERY WEEKDAY morning during the month of Elul, as we approach the High Holy Days, we conclude our worship with the sound of the shofar. This “blast from the past” is intended to awaken us to reflection on the year gone by and planning for the year to come.

The shofar’s long blast is called “tekiah,” from the Hebrew root “taka.” When the Bible uses this word, it usually means to insert something into something else, most often a knife or a sword into one’s enemy. One can use it to refer to hammering a tent peg into the ground or into the temple of a Canaanite general (Judges 4:21). Violent images aside, the tekiah of the shofar does indeed hammer home the message of teshuva. In modern Hebrew, a teka is a plug one inserts into a sheka, an outlet. When we sound the shofar we are connecting with the Almighty, bringing ourselves closer to a more spiritual life.

The other sound of the shofar is called “teruah.” Some sages suggest that this is a groaning sound, three shorter notes that we call “shevarim,” while others say it is a wailing sound approximated by nine staccato notes. For those who can’t make up their minds, the two are combined into a “shevarim-teruah,” a groan followed by a wail. No matter how you define it, a teruah is a heartfelt sound from deep within our souls reaching out to our compassionate Father on high.

May the shofar sounds this year awaken within us our deep longing for spiritual connection and may our deepest-felt emotions be stirred by its call.

Rabbi Edward M. Friedman
Freehold Jewish Center



Open our doors

“GOD ACCEPTS all prayers from anyone,” said Rabbi Shmaya Galperin. “The least we can do is open our doors as well to the entire community.” Judaism is accessible to all Jews, and during the High Holy Days our goal is to encourage every Jew to actively participate in these most holy and introspective days.

High Holy Day services will be held at The Holmdel Fire House Hall, 35 W. Main St. in Holmdel. English/Hebrew prayer books will be provided for all services. In addition, a special interactive children’s program will accompany the adult services. 

Wishing the entire community a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year.

Rabbi Shmaya & Rochi Galperin
Chabad Jewish Center of Holmdel

The power of a mitzva 

ROSH HASHANA is the Jewish New Year marking the anniversary of the creation of mankind. We are the “chosen of all creations” and it is incumbent upon us to lead by example the betterment of the world in which we live.

Rosh Hashana emphasizes the distinctive relationship between man and the almighty God. The shofar, the ram’s horn, is sounded to awaken the Jewish people to return to the almighty God. During the intermediate days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we pray for the almighty God to judge us favorably, and we are prompted to critically review ourselves and our actions over the past year and make resolutions. Every deed or action counts — to put on tefillin, to light Shabbos candles, to put up a mezuza in our home.

Elul is the month of reckoning when every Jew must make an accounting of his soul and everything that occurred throughout the course of the year. Each person must realize the meritorious details in his service of the almighty God and strengthen them; he must also be aware of the deficiencies in himself and in his service and correct these. With this introspective preparation, one merits a good and sweet year, materially and spiritually.

These last few months have been tumultuous ones for our brothers and sisters in Israel. Each one of us has the unlimited capacity of performing good deeds to bring merit and peace to our homeland and to those who reside in its holy cities. Never underestimate the power of a mitzva.

Rabbi Yossi Kanelsky 
Center for Jewish Life



Strength rooted in love

AT THE NEW Year, I cannot help but pray. Normally, I pray for a healthy New Year and for peace; I look forward to the gates closing on last year, so that we can be inscribed for blessings in the new year. This year, my prayers are filled with anxiety over the news in the world. 

More than my thoughts on any one policy or political maneuver, I ache over the way in which we have let the difficulties of the world create nightmares between each other. Laws will come and go, treaties will bring peace or will fail. There are consequences for the successes and failures of politics. None of us are prophets, and while we can believe that our insight is stronger than that of our neighbor, we really have no way of knowing what the future will bring — with one exception. I know this with perfect faith: If we let the politics of the world rip our communities apart, we all lose. The only real strength that can save this world is the one rooted in our love for each other’s life, dignity, and security. 

So, on behalf of Monmouth Reform Temple, my prayer for our community is for love, compassion, and the ability and desire to listen to each other with love and compassion. We cannot waste our lives posturing over decisions we can only partly control. Pirkei Avot teaches that when we exist in a world where no one behaves as a human should, we are commanded to be human. Join us as we work to create the community — the family that will be the source of strength that holds this world together. 

Rabbi Marc Kline
Monmouth Reform Temple
Tinton Falls



Happy re-birthday

ON EACH DAY of Rosh Hashana, we recite the words, “Today is the birthday of the world” (“Hayom harat olam”), during the repetition of the Musaf Amida, after each of the three sets of shofar blasts. These words reflect the idea that Rosh Hashana is traditionally considered the day on which the world was born, created by God as described in the beginning of B’reisheet/Genesis. On the first day of Rosh Hashana, the Torah and haftara readings echo this theme of birth. The Torah (Genesis 21) tells the story of the birth of Yitzhak/Isaac to Sarah; the haftara (1 Samuel 1) tells the story of the birth of Shmuel/Samuel to Hannah. According to rabbinic tradition, both Yitzhak and Shmuel were conceived on Rosh Hashana. 

Not only do the Torah and haftara readings celebrate the births of these two children, they also celebrate the “rebirth” of their mothers. Both Sarah and Hannah undergo a renewal of body and spirit. At first, Sarah laughs when she hears that she will give birth to a child at such an advanced age; her incredulity is ultimately overruled as she witnesses and experiences the fulfillment of God’s promise. Hannah’s tears of grief turn into tears of joy as she too becomes renewed by God’s blessings. 

Like Sarah and Hannah, each one of us has the potential to undergo our own individual rebirth during the High Holy Days season. Each year, our tradition encourages us to create ourselves anew as we reflect on our past mistakes and resolve to improve ourselves and enhance our spiritual lives. 

As we begin the year 5776, I wish a Happy Birthday to the world and a Happy Re-Birthday to each and every one of us!

Rabbi Lisa S. Malik
Temple Beth Ahm



Succeed by listening

WHEN BENJAMIN DISRAELI, the 19th-century British prime minister, was asked by a member of Parliament on whether he should speak up on a controversial issue, he responded: “Do you have anything to say that has not already been said?” “No,” the man conceded. “I just want the people whom I represent and the members of Parliament to know that I participated in the debate.” 

Disraeli answered, “It is better to remain silent and have people say, ‘I wonder what he’s thinking,’ than to speak up and have people say, ‘I wonder why he spoke.’”

We read in Ecclesiastes (3:7), “a time to be silent and a time to speak,” and this addresses our concern, but it is not clear if there is a middle ground. The rabbis have taught that only when one is able in such circumstances to think calmly is it proper for one to speak. 

Today, the expression and exchange of views is often an uncivil, highly unpleasant experience. When differences spiral down into uncivil acrimony, the dignity of individuals and community is diminished. This season of reflection, as we begin the New Year 5776, requires us to try harder not to speak unless there is truly something of value to say. We must pledge to uphold the basic norms of civil discussion and debate and show care for the dignity of every human being, even those with whom we may strongly disagree. We will succeed by listening carefully when others speak, seeking to understand what is being said and trying to learn from it.

Rabbi Laurence Malinger
Temple Shalom of Aberdeen



The power of forgiveness

ON YOM KIPPUR we recite such prayers as Ashamnu and Al Hayit, asking for divine compassion. God forgives us for our shortcomings, as long as we are sincere. We should follow God’s example and forgive those who we feel have wronged us. Not only might we repair a broken relationship, but forgiveness is healthy. Dr. Andrew Weil wrote, “People who forgive tend to be less angry, depressed, stressed out, and anxious and have lower blood pressure and heart rates than those who hold grudges. If you tend to have a hard time letting go of a grievance, consider that forgiveness does not mean you have to forget an incident, but rather that you can place a limit on how it affects you and your relationships.” 

Forgive and start anew in 5776! 

Marlboro Jewish Center is a dynamic Conservative synagogue celebrating 44 years of service to the community. We have close to 200 children in our preschool and almost 300 students in our religious school. Please join us for Shabbat, holidays, and programs — you are welcome here! Go to mjcnj.com and call our office at 732-536-2300 for more information. 

Shana tova u’metuka, a good and sweet New Year!

Rabbi Michael Pont
Marlboro Jewish Center



Turn around

THERE IS A hasidic parable in which a rabbi asks one of his students, “If you are going east and suddenly you want to travel west, how far do you have to go?” The poor young man gives many complex answers and the rabbi listens patiently until, unsatisfied, he answers his own question, saying, “If you are going east and you want to go west, all you have to do is turn around. It’s as simple as that.”

As we enter these Yamim Nora’im, these High Holy Days, this is the time to think about the changes that we want to make in our lives: to live more thoughtfully, to spend more time with the people we love, and to construct a community dedicated to supporting each other in good times and bad. This is the time to turn around and to point our lives in the direction that we know is the right one.

I am grateful to be joining the community of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen during this High Holy Day season. I have found that Neve Shalom recognizes that each of us is on our own Jewish journey, and the synagogue understands that our role is to build community by honoring and supporting every individual. I invite you to spend these holy days with us so that we may plot our paths through the coming year together.

Rabbi Eric M. Rosin
Congregation Neve Shalom



What was meant to be 

A MIDRASH: Once upon a time there was a king who wanted to give a treat to the workers in his diamond mine. He told them that for three hours only, they could keep for themselves all the diamonds they could pluck from the ground. Some got so excited that as soon as they found a stone, they would polish it and fantasize what they would do with it once the three hours were over. Others just tried to collect as many diamonds as possible, leaving the polishing and fantasizing to later. Needless to say, these people collected much more than the others. Why? Because they used the time for what was meant to be. 

Being a part of a synagogue is learning to experience time the way it is meant to be experienced. Every holiday, every Shabbat, every life-cycle event we experience together empowers us to feel that in this crazy and chaotic world each of us is part of something larger than our individual self.

Join us on the journey of living moments fully. Shana Tova!

Rabbi Ira Rothstein
Temple Beth Shalom



A timeless promise

AS A KID, I hated Yom Kippur. The ritual seemed tedious and uninteresting, so I chose to spend my time in shul counting down the number of pages left in the siddur. But as I matured, my taste for the ritual matured as well. The words no longer carried emptiness; they overflowed with a sense of promise, a promise of the possibility of a better tomorrow. 

Rituals are tedious and uninteresting when the meaning is lost, and unfortunately Yom Kippur’s meaning is often lost because we misread its purpose. As it says in the Mahzor, On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Yom Kippur isn’t a singular moment in time, it is the culmination of time. 

In our calendar, Yom Kippur is the pinnacle of 10 days from Rosh Hashana and 40 days from Rosh Hodesh Elul and seven weeks from Tisha B’Av. What this teaches us is that the rituals of Yom Kippur make the most impact when we take the time to breathe into its promise. When we’re younger, we may not think that creating a better tomorrow requires work. When we’re older, we may be too jaded by the challenges of life. But we can make tomorrow better than today. It just takes time. 

Every year we count down the days till Yom Kippur and hopefully it won’t be like I counted down its pages as a kid. Hopefully we’ll realize that embedded within the timeless ritual of our tradition is a promise that only matures better with age.

Shana Tova (Happy New Year) and G’mar Hatima Tova — May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Rabbi Ari Saks
Congregation Beth Mordecai
Perth Amboy



Where are you?

RABBI ABRAHAM JOSHUA Heschel told a story about a school boy who was forgetful. He was always losing things. So he worked out a system. Before he went to sleep at night he made out a list of all the things he would need the next day. He wrote: My suit is on the chair. My hat is in the closet. My books are on the desk. My shoes are under the chair. And I am in the bed. He woke up the next morning and started to collect his things. They were all in the right places. The suit was on the chair. The books were on the desk. The shoes were under the chair. Then he came to the last item on his list. He went to look for himself in the bed but the search was in vain. He wasn’t there.

“Where am I?” he asked (Rabbi Jack Riemer, The World of the High Holy Days).

Where are you? What has changed since last Rosh Hashana? What have you learned? What have you yet to learn? Whom must you forgive? What must you let go of? How will you begin?

On Rosh Hashana we are given the gift of teshuva, of returning — to the best of ourselves, to others we have wronged, and toward God. We are given the chance to engage in heshbon hanefesh, soul-searching and self-discovery.

As we prepare to begin this New Year, where are you and how will this year be different?

Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun
Congregation Torat El



Letting go of resentment

A HIGH POINT of Rosh Hashana morning in the synagogue is the recitation of Musaf, the additional service which includes three special blessings representing some of the principal themes for the day: Malhuyot, celebrating God’s sovereignty; Zihronot, remembrance; and Shofarot, shofar blasts. According to Rabbi Reuven Hammer, these blessings relate to each other as we proclaim God sovereign and then ask to be remembered by God through the shofar blasts, which symbolize our freedom.

But on Rosh Hashana, God doesn’t just remember us; God remembers all our deeds and ma’a’seh olam, the deeds of the world. All that is hidden is revealed; nothing is forgotten. As many of us recall our own deeds with trepidation we can’t help but wonder, Mi yehapes li tzedek — Who would find me innocent when my deeds are recalled? 

In truth our deeds are not the only thing we might recall with trepidation. Our own thoughts weigh heavily on our minds. If God remembers everything, then surely God knows what we remember and what we are thinking. During the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holy Day season, we not only seek forgiveness from those we have wronged, but we strive to forgive those who have wronged us. This is not always easy when we hold on to resentments.

The tradition of the 12 Steps — a system that facilitates conquering addictive behavior — has a saying: Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Forgiving others requires us to let go wholly of any lingering resentment. In this season of reconciliation, may we each find the courage to not just be forgiven but to forgive, free of any lingering bitterness or resentment.

Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Congregation Kol Am



Turn toward holiness

WITH THE DAYS of Awe upon us, our hearts and minds are turned to sacred things. I like to see these days not simply as a few moments of sacredness but rather a few moments that create a holy space in our lives for sacredness throughout the year. The words and prayers said on these days can and ought to apply to us every day of the year even in the most secular of spaces and times.

Indeed, the lessons of these days is about reaching for holiness and finding it. And to find it, all we need to do is turn toward it. Holiness is a mere step away, and our tradition teaches that it is always accessible. 

The prophet Isaiah says:

“Come, let us reach an understanding — says the Lord.
Be your sins like crimson,
They can be made like snow;
Be they red as dyed wool,
They can become like fleece.”

That is the touchstone text of these Days of Awe. These are not holidays. This is not a time of vacation. These are holy days. These are times of vocation when God is speaking to the hearts of us all and begging us to turn and become the people we ought to be. 

Let us all answer God’s call with our hearts open to the reality that what we can be are beings just a bit lower than the angels.

Rabbi Cy Stanway
Temple Beth Miriam



A visitor’s excitement

IN ELUL, it is customary to recite twice daily Psalm 27 — “By David, Hashem is my light and my salvation…” In verse 4, David the King says, “One thing of Hashem that I shall seek would that I dwell in the house of Hashem all the days of my life to behold the delight of Hashem and to visit in his sanctuary.” This verse seems contradictory! David begs to dwell in his house “all the days of his life” and concludes “to visit his sanctuary.” What is he really asking for? 

We have all witnessed the joy of a 13-year-old boy when he becomes bar mitzva. He is so excited he can’t wait for the morning service so he can finally put on the tefillin and perform the mitzva for which he waited so long. The photographers are there, the entire family is in attendance, and the moment is finally here. Mazal tov! The excitement lasts for a while and then diminishes as time goes on. It is the same with all new mitzvot. 

David the King is requesting from Hashem to dwell in his house of Torah his entire life, but he wants to be a full-life dweller — as a visitor. He wants every day in shul to be as if he’s a visitor with the excitement in being part of the Jewish nation. When he dons tallit and tefillin daily, it should be like his very first day. 

May the entire year be like the first day, with excitement and enthusiasm! Blessings to all NJJN readers for a happy, healthy, and sweet New Year! 

Rabbi Yaakov Tesser
Young Israel of Aberdeen/Congregation Bet Tefilah



Will you pray?

NO ONE DOES anything in a synagogue that can’t be done elsewhere. You do not need a synagogue to study, or pray, or do acts of loving-kindness. I know this because I’m reminded of it again and again, especially at this time of year: “You know, rabbi, I don’t need a temple to pray.”

No, you don’t. You can pray anywhere. But — Do you? Do you sit down on Shabbat, or on a Jewish holiday, or in the morning when you awaken and actually pray? And if you did pray “anywhere,” what would you say?

I pray in all kinds of places: at home, in my car, by the ocean, near mountains, when I see a baby. But I also pray with my Jewish community because the community reminds me of the prayers I forgot to say. The community reminds me to pray not only for God to heal, but for the strength for me to help people to heal. Not only for God to lift up the fallen, but for the compassion to reach out my hands to lift them up myself. Not only for God’s blessings, but for the courage to see that my life can be a blessing, too.

And so can yours.

Many Reform congregations are introducing a new mahzor, our High Holy Day prayerbook. It is beautiful and inspiring, and I am looking forward to sharing it with my community. It challenges us to think about who we can be in the year ahead, and it invites us to feel that we are, together, more than we can ever be alone.

Yes, you can pray anywhere. Will you?

Rabbi Don Weber
Temple Rodeph Torah
Marlboro Township



Step one: love

THE JEWISH PEOPLE faces the New Year at a time of turmoil, if not crisis. The Iran deal (whether it goes through or not), major demographic changes leading to institutional challenges; the ongoing scandal of the lack of religious pluralism in Israel; the shame of the Claims Conference stealing from Holocaust survivors (how low can you go?); Jewish terrorists in Israel burning churches and murdering babies; and, of course, a Jewish community divided, perhaps more than ever, about Israel.

Not good.

Facing all of this, there are three things we need to keep foremost in our thoughts during the upcoming year: Ahavat Yisrael, Ahavat Yisrael, and Ahavat Yisrael! Love of Israel, Love of Israel, and Love of Israel!

No matter how bitterly divided we are over the issues, at the end of the day we have only each other. People sometimes say that we are our own worst enemies. That really isn’t true — the competition to be our worst enemy is pretty fierce. But it is true that we can weaken ourselves internally far more than any external force could — and those external forces (think ISIS) will be more than happy to finish the job.

So step one: Love. Love the people who come to shul and those who don’t. Love the Jews who agree with you and those who don’t. Love the Jews that look like you and those who don’t. And pray to Hashem that the New Year will be one of love for the whole people of Israel. Shana tova u’metuka!

Rabbi Robert L. Wolkoff
Congregation B’nai Tikvah
North Brunswick

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