In many ways, the spiritual process of preparing for the Yamim Nora’im affirms that change is possible: from the small, eye-opening moments to those that transform even the areas of our lives and the parts of the world that feel the most stuck.
Join us during this month of Elul, as members of the BJ community share these daily reminders of the holy possibility of transformation.
Yom Kippur in the Sinai wilderness—Moses returns to the top of Mount Sinai for a second time after the sin of the golden calf, and he remains there for another 40 days and 40 nights. He pleads for forgiveness on the people’s behalf. He beseeches and implores God, he pours out his soul, he exhausts all arguments and all prayers. Finally, God relents and appears to Moses in the figure of a prayer leader, covered in a tallit, and teaches Moshe to recite the Thirteen Attributes of God: “Adonai, Adonai, God, merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.” Whenever Israel sin, let them turn to Me with these words that describe my essence and I will forgive them. Then God says: “I have forgiven, as you have asked.” Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, his face radiant, bearing the blessing of God’s forgiveness. It is the 10th of Tishrei, the day of Yom Kippur.
The first time I went to the mikvah was in 2010, when I converted with BJ (although I still think of it as confirmation, since my father was Jewish). The moment in time was clear; I had studied for a year, a group of rabbis approved it, I had been to the mikvah, and I had a new Hebrew name! Transformation completion.
How did my husband, the son of an Episcopalian Minister and grandson of an Episcopalian Bishop—a man who could trace his lineage to the Mayflower—end up buried under a Star of David, despite not having formally converted to Judaism?
Many years ago, I returned from a business trip to be greeted by my late wife telling me that our daughter, Deb, had some news she wanted to tell me. The news was that she was dating a woman. In all honesty, my first reaction was to wonder what the neighbors might think, and even what we may have done as parents to bring this about. My next reaction, however, should have been my very first one: how could we support Deb? She was open and honest with us, and we had to meet this honesty with acceptance and love.
As I watch my nine-month-old crawl, without abandon, into every hazard of our not-yet-childproofed apartment, I marvel at his fearlessness. He pulls himself up on unsteady surfaces, comes close to crashing into furniture, and tastes everything in his path. Sometimes he will fall, but that doesn’t prevent him from continuing to explore.
In a number of hours I will be making the walk down West End Avenue. I always feel the bigness of the moment in that walk. They are not called Yamim Nora’im, the Awesome Days, for nothing. The flutter in my stomach and the intensity of the steps isn’t only because I’m a rabbi and have our community to lead. I am filled with anticipation of the power of the days, standing before God and the community and searching deeply within myself.
I used to come to BJ’s morning minyan when I received a postcard (or email), or when I was observing the yahrzeit of one of my grandparents. Then, in 2015, my mother died just before Pesah.
It has taken a while to understand why this topic seems difficult to respond to, yet impossible for me to ignore. My first instinct looking at the theme was, “I can’t do this; it’s too painful.” But after thinking about it more, I realize that I’ve actually been doing the work of Elul for the past 13 months, just under a different title, for the work of Elul and grief are strikingly similar. Surely, the sudden, unexpected death of my husband and the father of our four children last summer qualifies as an experience ripe for radical transformation.
I’m fascinated by thinkers who express deep trust in life. Lately, impelled by anxiety, I’ve wondered what they mean by this, another way of saying “faith.” For me, transformation has often begun this tiny: curiosity about one concept. Curiosity itself is a transformation, like roots growing from a seed. The more I water these roots, the sooner and stronger they blossom.
As a photographer, a large part of my work over the past 30 years has been to explore the spiritual world by documenting ritual in its many manifestations. I have been fortunate that my vocation affords me the opportunity to experience events while at the same time creating visual art. Recently, I documented a Hindu Pilgrimage in Northeast India, the Kumbh Mela, billed as the largest gathering of humanity on the planet. This year, the Kumbh Mela hosted 150 million pilgrims over a six week period, and, on my last day there, 12 million pilgrims crushed their way to the rivers to bathe.
Growing up at BJ, compassion for one another was ingrained in me as a pillar of Jewish life.
Yet, though the High Holy Days emphasize introspection and the need for self-forgiveness, for many of us, self-compassion might not be a priority.
As I begin my journey into Elul and the year ahead, I look back on the year slipping into the past. I especially reflect on the major events, the ones that I focused on, both in my mind and in my prayers. In my spiritual life, I am both a believer and a doubter, wondering about my prayers and God’s role in the world. I wonder, is my prayer having an impact? Is transformation taking place?
My husband Theo and I got married eight years ago at BJ. I was 34 and he was 47. We both wanted children, but I think we also both knew that, due to some health issues, having children naturally might be difficult. We couldn’t have imagined, however, that our journey toward having a family would take seven years, including three early miscarriages, and many doctors telling us they had no answers.
הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃
This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.
While referring to the month of Nissan, this pasuk from Exodus is also the prooftext for the commandment to mark Rosh Hodesh—the new month—with ritual and blessing. Alongside the special Torah readings and liturgical additions, the new month is also to be marked with a lesser known practice: Kiddush Levana, translated as the Sanctification of the New Moon.
When I transitioned from working full time to retirement, I initially found myself at a loss. My career had been the fulcrum of my life and I felt off-balance. How would I spend my time? Would I manage financially? Suddenly I felt “old,” and had no tools to help me cope.
The most transformative experience for me over the past two years has been the birth and adoption of my two children, Aaron and Kaylee, born just over a year apart.
Small changes often have an exponential impact.
Last year, after services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah at BJ, our new shul, we were invited to Tashlikh, to cast our sins upon the water. We gathered among a few friends, some known but mostly new acquaintances, and were given stones to toss instead of pieces of bread.
If you had asked me just five years ago to define my Jewish practice, I am not totally sure how I might have answered. I am confident, however, that my answer would not have included going up to the bima during services, receiving an aliyah, reading from the Torah, or leading services. I grew up Modern Orthodox in a town that is filled with observant Jews. I attended an Orthodox day school, an Orthodox sleepaway camp, and, until I went to college, I had only met those who practiced a similar Judaism. I love my Jewish upbringing, but still find purpose in challenging the norm.
Over this past year I have reflected on how to be more present as a person of color in a positive, constructive, and valuable way—not only as a member of BJ, but also in my place of work. My involvement with BJ’s Racial Justice Steering Committee has been a major force driving this work.
Jewish tradition teaches that each of us has three names: the name given to us, the name others give us, and the name we give ourselves. How did I have the huzpah to give myself the name “Jewish Storyteller?” While I always loved stories, I didn’t dream of becoming a storyteller. How did it all happen?
Growing up in apartheid South Africa, there wasn’t much reason to believe that things would change in that despicable system of white supremacy. From my youth, however, I was taught to “speak out” for justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Indeed, eventually progressive speech and actions led to collective change.
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I started coming to BJ regularly when I became a mom three and a half years ago. Before then, most of the Jewish programming targeting young singles in NYC did not appeal to me. I never felt that connected to whatever holiday we were there to celebrate, but I was envious of those who seemed excited about it. I’ve always loved spending holidays with family and friends, but it was the togetherness—the connection to one another—that connected me, rather than the ritual itself. My daughter, Tahlia, has opened a new door for me, although I didn’t really recognize the changes at first.
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Two years ago, sitting in an extended mindfulness retreat, I began to experience waves of sadness. I wasn’t sure of the source. I was containing the sadness, keeping it under control, not allowing it to erupt.
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When going to shul and seeing fellow congregants participate, some roles appear more daunting than others. Is my Hebrew good enough to accept an aliyah? Would I accept a hagba (as I am fearful of dropping the Torah)? Am I going to open or close the ark at the right moment? Why is dressing the Torah sometimes so confounding?
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For months, while the refugee crisis dominated the news, I wanted to help in some concrete way, yet I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. During the Yamim Nora’im, I reflected on my failure to take action. Inspiration came when I was asked to join BJ’s Refugee Employment Project (REP), and began to help refugees and asylees find work. Read more »
One month from now, we’ll gather on Rosh Hashanah and read from the Torah about Hagar, the Egyptian handmaid of Avram and Sarai, cast off into the wilderness along with her son, Ishmael. Without food or water, Ishmael was near death, when an angel of God reaches out to Hagar. In a moment of Divine intervention, God opens her eyes, and she sees a well of water, providing the sustenance to save Ishmael’s life. Read more »