Celebrating the High Holy Days at Oak Park Temple for 150 years

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Rosh Hashanah, New Year's Day in the Jewish calendar, began at sundown last Wednesday. Oak Park Temple members who came to the family service at 6:30 p.m. or the Ma'ariv service at 8 p.m. likely greeted each other with "shanah tovah," a friendly, light-hearted greeting similar to saying "Happy New Year" on Jan. 1.

The more serious participants present, however, might also have greeted each other with "Ketiva Va Chatima Tova," which means, more or less, "May you be written and sealed for a good new year by God." The second greeting reveals that Rosh Hashanah, the month of Elul that came before it, and the 10 days that follow, leading up to Yom Kippur (Oct. 3-4), involve serious spiritual work.

"A lot of what we try to do is remind people during the High Holy Days," said the temple's cantor, Julie Yugend-Green, "that's it's more than just coming and listening to what we're chanting and saying; that there's work involved."

Yugend-Green's colleague, Rabbi Max Weiss, said forgiveness is part of the Ten Days of Repentance (Aseret Yemei Teshuvah) between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur but added, "Forgiveness does not come from the rabbi or the cantor or even the voice of God. Forgiveness happens when the person corrects the mistake and then asks for forgiveness from God. The Day of Atonement only atones when people have made peace with one another."

"Making repentance from individual to individual," said Yugend-Green, "can be the toughest thing to do. In the house where I grew up during the Month of Elul [preceding Rosh Hashanah] everyone in my house would go to one another individually, apologize and ask for forgiveness. It makes you vulnerable to walk up to somebody you may have wronged and say, 'I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?' But the act of doing that, individual to individual, is extremely important."

Weiss said the liturgies during these High Holy Days present God as a sovereign judge. 

"The prayers that we say are very literal," Yugend-Green added. "They talk about the people of Israel being like sheep walking before God and being judged, that we all come before God who writes down in the Book of Life who's going to live and who's going to die. If you interpret it literally, it's pretty terrifying."

Weiss emphasized that how each temple member repents, and what they repent for, varies from individual to individual. To illustrate, Yugend-Green recalled, "There were about 15 people at a Shabbat morning service a couple weeks ago, and Rabbi Weiss asked them what they wanted to hear during the High Holy Days. Everybody had something different they wanted to hear.

"One said they want to hear about Israel. Another said they want to hear about what's going on in this country. Still another said they want to hear about repentance. Everyone seemed to have a different need they wanted to have met. For some the need is deeply personal. Everybody is looking for ways to find peace."

Weiss said that at the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah service he tells the assembly, "This is your time. You will be here sitting in our congregation for a total of about eight hours during the next 10 days. Use this time to think about your life. Think about what you hold holy and important, about where you have gone wrong and where you wish to do better in the year to come."

It is very important, he added, for people in our society to take time to reflect on their lives. "There aren't many times in this modern life in the world where we live today where we actually have time to sit and think — at least not before you are retired — unless you're intentional, but most people choose not to be."

Both of Oak Park Temple's leaders have decided to approach these "days of turning" this year from a positive point of view. One of the texts read at the Rosh Hashanah service is the story of creation. 

"One way of thinking about Rosh Hashanah," said Weiss, "is that it is primarily an occasion for gratitude: for the world we live in and our place in it. Gratitude is useless without it turning us toward something positive, but at the same time repentance grows out of gratitude, not out of a sense of sinfulness. That's the way I approach it."

Sesquicentennial

One of his sermons during the High Holy Days will be about gratitude for the congregation's long history. 

"One sermon," he said, "is about our congregation's 150th anniversary and what it means to be part of a community that has existed as a community for 150 years." [See sidebar]–

Likewise, Yugend-Green intends to begin the service on Yom Kippur morning with a song in Hebrew that speaks of things getting better. 

"When I chose the song," she explained, "I was thinking about Israel and about the world in general. The world is a scary place right now because our news is so immediate. So I wanted to choose a song to begin Yom Kippur on a hopeful note even though we are going to be reciting and chanting prayers that speak very literally about who will live and who will die.

"Repentance and hopefulness are linked. If you as an individual make a commitment to repenting, to returning to the way you want to be, and have been praying to God for strength to do better, then hope can follow."

Weiss resists theological correctness. "Our job as rabbis," he explained, "is to put things in the right order, to make sure that the ritual happens properly and is well done." When that happens, each member has the freedom to interpret the readings and prayers for themselves.

Traditionally, he said, rabbis are also teachers of traditional Jewish thinking and then a facilitator helping his members become the best people they can be. In his sermons he tries to say only three things: 

1) You matter,

2) The world is broken, and 

3) You can help fix it. 

"Then," he said, "I show people how I try to apply those themes in various ways."

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