Elul Kavannot 5777

In the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, BJ members are sharing daily reflections on what the Yamim Nora’im means to them. You will read thoughts on spiritual preparation; stories of High Holy Day memories from years past; and reflections on how to experience these sacred days. We hope that these kavannot will inspire you, and help you prepare for the year to come.

Discover last year’s Elul reflections here.

Yom Kippur Joy

By Deborah Sacks Mintz

In my years working as a Jewish educator, I’ve often posed the following question to my students: What is your favorite Jewish holiday? This question has been met with a myriad of answers, ranging from the expected (Hanukkah, because of the presents!) to the amusing: (Tisha Be’av, because it’s the only day at camp that I don’t have to go in the lake.)

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Building a History

By Shelley Wong-Chassine

My journey to Judaism began with a fateful trip to Israel over two decades ago. Of the many awe-inspiring sites I visited, the Western Wall captivated me the most. It held an allure that left me with a sense of yearning I had yet to comprehend. Over the years, I have returned to Israel to spend time with beloved family and friends and. each time, I have been inexplicably drawn to the Western Wall, seeking to learn a little bit more about its history, to excavate its secrets. Read more »

It's Not So Simple

By Moshe Horn

I will never forget that day in yeshiva in Jerusalem. It was September of 1988, and we were studying the Yamim Nora’im. There was a kid in the class who was mouthing off to the teacher and causing trouble. The teacher confronted the student and asked him why he was misbehaving. The student said that he didn’t believe in anything that was being taught; he just needed a place to stay. The rabbi said to him, “so you don’t believe in God?” The student said, “no, I don’t.” The rabbi then looked at him and said, “in that case, I would like you to ask God to kill your parents.” The room went silent. Read more »

A Prayer of Hope

By Alan Mantel

While containing universally challenging themes, there has always been a majesty to the Unetanah Tokef that I couldn’t identify. Each Rosh Hashanah, when I was growing up, the Rabbi looked out over the congregation, from his podium on the bimah, and the low rumble of conversations came to a halt. He was going to speak about serious stuff: life and death, potential causes of death for the unrepentant, and varying qualities of life for those who lived. I had a pretty good year; I tried to be a good person – would I make it? Read more »


By Peggy Moss

If you had asked me several years ago how I prepared for the High Holy Days, there was not much I did or gave a great deal of thought to. But since I started going to BJ’s Morning Minyan in 2008, I realized how beautiful this process could be.

Whenever I hear the shofar being blown, from the first day of Elul through the holidays, chills run through my body. Read more »

Pleading as the Gates Begin to Close

By Les Nelson

It is late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur. The sense that Yom Kippur is beginning to draw to a close, that time is fleeting, is palpable. The concluding service begins. The congregation grows in size and my anticipation of what for years has been been a moment that strikes at my soul, at my core, is growing. I am tempted to flip ahead in Mahzor Lev Shalem to find it, but I resist—because there is more praying, more soul searching, and more work to do before then.

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Out of the Way, Into the Heart

By Rivky Spivak

I’ve always been most drawn to the Kol Nidre service; my experience of it feels deeply spiritual and warmly enveloping. The most memorable one for me – up to this point – was the year I found a synagogue I’d never been to that was somewhat out of the way. I came upon this synagogue almost by chance when I was off from work on Erev Yom Kippur, and had biked over to drop off food for my sister before the fast. Read more »

Finding Strength in Humility

By Shari Kenner
“The Kohanim and the people that were standing in the courtyard of the Temple, when they heard the special name of G-d said aloud by the Kohain Gadol in holiness and purity, bowed down and fell on their faces, saying: Blessed by G-d’s glorious majesty forever.”

I had never seen this for myself until I was 21 years old, in an old shul in Jerusalem for the Avodah service on Yom Kippur. Read more »

Serving Ourselves by Serving the Community

By Eliana Light

As a Jewish professional, the High Holy Days can sometimes feel like Christmas-time at Macy’s: the biggest working days of the year. It’s long hours, high stress, and spirituality can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. But there can also be great joy and pride in knowing you are creating a sacred container for others. It is this perspective that I received from my rabbi father and Jewish educator mother. Read more »

A Long Day's Journey into Night

By Harriet Goren

For much of my life, the afternoon of Yom Kippur was a time to burrow into the couch and count the minutes until dinner. But after I came to BJ, I discovered in those few hours a most intense and meaningful part of the day.

At all other services, we reach the Torah reading after a peaceful ascent through psalms and prayers. We have time to take a deep breath and prepare for the pageantry and complexity that follows. Read more »

From Father to Son, a Lifetime of Blessing

By Jeff Feig

My father grew up in a Hasidic family in Romania and my mother grew up Orthodox in Europe and Israel. I grew up in Toronto. We had Shabbat dinner every Friday with Kiddush, Motzi, and occasional z’mirot, but my dad didn’t follow the tradition of blessing us, or using the words he would use, “bentching us on Shabbat”. Read more »

Sweet and Bittersweet Reflections at the New Year

By David Bernard

As the Yamim Nora’im approach each year – especially Rosh Hashanah – my wife and I remember with great joy, warmth and happiness, tinged with some sadness, how we have celebrated this very significant time in years past. Read more »

Gathering Together for a Sweet New Year

By Tess Chanoch

I have fond memories of spending Rosh Hashanah with my family in the suburbs of New Jersey. When I was younger, I would step out of services and palaver with my friends, but I always made sure to come back before the sermon. I loved hearing the sermon on Rosh Hashanah. Our rabbi is thought provoking and his sermon was essential for the car ride home when my father would ask, “‘What did you think?” Read more »

What Should I Ask For?

By Rabbi Anne Ebersman

One Elul tradition that has become an important part of my spiritual preparation for the Yamim Nora’im is reading Psalm 27 every morning. When I was starting rabbinical school, I was very excited about the idea that during Elul, we are supposed to be taking an accounting of our souls (חֶשְׁבּוֹן נֶפֶשׁ); I started enthusiastically reading Psalm 27 daily on the assumption that it would teach me how to do that. I was disappointed with what I found. Read more »

Not Complete, but a Little More Whole

By Chris Reid

“Uv’khen ten pahdekha”. Words strangely familiar. Steps toward Yamim Nora’im. Steps along the path of taking our son, Ian, to children’s services; remnants of prayer lodging themselves in my mind. On this particular year – now more than twenty years ago – I was able to join Joan at Ne’ilah, walking in at the moment of this prayer. Read more »

A Renewal of Spirit

By Kristen Kersey

I Want to Be Somebody New! was one of my favorite childhood books. A leopard is unhappy with himself. He turns into an elephant, a giraffe, and a mouse, but his friends say they like him just as he was. By the end, he’s a leopard again, and we’ve learned a lesson about being ourselves… which isn’t easy if you don’t always like yourself.

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When the Gates are Closing

By Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal
One thing many people don’t know about me is that I often wait until the last minute to get things done. When I have a deadline, I think about what needs to be done, I outline it in my head and try to go through all the pitfalls, but when it comes to actually doing the thing, whether it be writing a d’var Torah or a project for work, it takes me until almost the last minute to get it out. Read more »

A Taste Of Childhood

By Jacelyn Gluska

I moved from California to New York last year, leaving the sunshine and my family for the big city. The day leading up to Kol Nidre is profoundly planted in my taste buds. As a child, I remember my button-sized Yemenite grandmother, my safta, crouching on the floor to blend and mold the Zalabia (deep fried dough), which we inhaled before the fast began. Breathing in the kitchen, I gulped the dense smell of oil and hard boiled eggs and the remaining burn from the peppers used to make the Zhug. The counters were always smeared with tomato juice and seeds left behind from the grated tomato we used to dip our bread in. Our table was covered in a white, satin tablecloth that we brought out once a year for this meal. The white plates we used characterized the simplicity of the table before us, always feeling just like my safta. Read more »

Falling Korim

By Ariel Zwang

My grandfather, Sidney Riback, graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1936, and my early memories of him were formed in the 1960s. His rabbinate was of course quite different from that of 21st-century rabbis. He was hilarious and affectionate at home, but to the congregation, he and my grandmother were “Rabbi and Hilda.” He wore a mitre-like tall kipah and academic gown during services—black year-round, and white for the high holidays. And he was always treated with reverence. Read more »

Bound by the Thread of Life

By Martin Rosenblatt

Each year with the approach of the High Holy Days, there is deep searching for the meaning of life and how to behave—not only as a Jew, but also in exploration of being Jewish as part of a greater humanity.

In 1986, I came to BJ, in search of a rabbi who shared my strong social justice values and would officiate at my wedding with Sandy Cheiten. I met Marshall, and a string of what was to become beshert began.

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The Fruits of our Labor

By Lisa Zucker & Paula Galowitz
As we are the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants who came to this country as unskilled workers themselves, our connections to the farmworkers are obvious. Indeed, so many of our community’s ancestors came here with nothing more than a willingness to work hard. When employment turned to exploitation, allies stood up. We must also help our neighbors who toil in the fields. This is our history as Jews and our biblical calling. As chef and food writer Ruth Reichl so eloquently writes, “Most of us are no longer ignorant of the environmental costs of the way we raise our food… Read more »

The Shofar: An Alarm Clock for the Soul

By Sarah Krinsky

Rosh Hodesh Elul always seems to carry with it some dissonance for me. This has been especially true this year, with Elul beginning before the start of the academic school year—the calendar that has the most practical bearing on my life. Celebrating Elul – announcing and marking the beginning of the Yamim Nora’im season – just didn’t feel quite right when the rest of my life was still so stuck in summer, so distant from the experience of contemplation, reflection, and repentance that I associate so strongly with autumn.  Read more »

Searching for Community and a Sense of Place

By Michael Brown

Growing up, the High Holy Day services that I attended took place in people’s backyards, in rented rec rooms, and in Unitarian Churches. I belonged to a community that didn’t have a physical home — at least not a traditional prayer space — and certainly not one big enough to fit all its members for High Holy Day services.
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You Are Only Here

By Jessica Gross

Fall leaves blown in a heap against a low brick wall; an orange slant of early-evening sun; a slow, slow walk.

This is the image that comes to mind when I think of the High Holy Days of my childhood. In my memory, I am walking with my family on Yom Kippur, waiting out the waning hours of the fast. Read more »

Even Angels Need Each Other

By Rabbi Michael R. Boino

One of the most difficult theological concepts of the High Holy Days for many of us to accept is that of God as King. The idea of a supreme ruler who demands complete submission and service, punishes people for wrongdoing, and rewards those who do good can be difficult to take on. It can make us uncomfortable, and it runs counter to what we know to be true about the human condition. But turning to our liturgy, it seems that accepting God’s Kingship might mean something entirely different. Read more »

Discovering our Jewish "Anchors"

By Barbara Litt

I grew up a Reform Jew, and the High Holy Days were when we attended services religiously. I find that the depth of my Jewish anchor changes as I age.

First, there was my marriage to Richard, a Brooklyn boy with a Yeshiva education. How wonderful to find a besheret who shared a religious background! Read more »

Sometimes We Miss the Mark

By Tobias Divack Moss

Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are collectively known as the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. For many, myself included, this title could be reversed and it would still be just as instructive. We Jews are the Nora’im ha-Yamim—those who are in awe of these special days. The moment the summer heat begins to recede, we start to anticipate their power and potential.

How to Find and Raise Your Voice

By Suzanne Schecter

My Jewish life did not involve a whole lot of intention before finding BJ. The High Holy Days consisted of the celebration of a new year and time to reflect on the past year, with hopes of receiving forgiveness from some mythical place on high. I would most often find myself scrambling during the repetition of Kol Nidre, trying to think of all of the “bad” things I had done, most often being left with a lot of anxiety that my brain was empty and nothing had come to mind. I felt so inadequate. Was I the only person sitting in the sanctuary with my mind blank? Read more »

A Meditation on Ki Hiney Kahomer from the Kol Nidre service

By Rabbi Adina Lewittes

For Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l, Tisha Be’Av launched the journey of the High Holy Days. The Temple’s falling walls lead us through nine weeks of introspection and teshuvah to learn to live courageously with life’s vulnerability. Celebrating within the fragile walls of the Sukkah signifies our arrival.

On Tisha Be’av we chanted:
Zion’s precious children, like fine gold, how they’re now as earthen pitchers, the work of the potter!

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A Kavannah For A New Year

By Rabbi Michael Strassfeld 

We stand once again on the brink of a New Year. The air is redolent with opportunities. Rosh Hashanah is a call to change, a crying out for hope even in the bleakest landscapes. In response, the people of Israel stir in their sleep, aroused by the dreams carried on the music and memories of this season, but then they turn over, pulling the blankets of the familiar more tightly around themselves, hoping to once again fall back asleep.

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Preparing for the High Holy Days

By Cantor David Mintz

The very beginning of Mishnah Rosh Hashanah tells us that this is a holiday that actually has four names: Rosh Hashanah (Head of the Year), Yom Teruah (Day of Sounding [the shofar]), Yom HaDin (Day of Judgment) and Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance). While each of these names carries profound meaning and leads us toward a deeper understanding of these holy days, I often find myself particularly drawn toward the notion of Rosh Hashanah as the day of remembrance. Read more »