Lessons for a New Year

Rabbi Brian Walt. Photo by Alan Brigish
Last year Rabbi Brian Walt taught students the tradition lessons about the shofar; a ram's horn that, in numbered bleats, sounds an awakening to awareness and repentance. Photos by Alan Brigish

By CK Wolfson - September 21, 2006

They listen attentively as Nicole Cabot, education director of the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center religious school, reads them a story about a Rabbi who criticizes the men who are praying because they are mispronouncing the words of the prayers. He makes a series of meaningless sounds mimicking them, then says, "The way I spoke to you is the way you just spoke to God." The group feels ashamed until one man speaks up: "Even if you, Rabbi, didn't understand our prayers, we feel confident that God knows our true thoughts and feelings." And the Rabbi, admitting the man is right, answers, "On this holy day, even the prayers of those who are unable to say them properly will be heard if they come from the heart."

And in a simplistic but essential way - from the heart - the story conveys the lesson for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, 5767. "It is a time of reflection," Ms. Cabot says, "and we encourage the children to think about the type of person they want to be." They interpret the story, share the ways in which they relate to it, and offer their own examples of the message being conveyed.

Nicole Cabot. Photo by Alan Brigish
Hebrew center educational director Nicole Cabot uses stories and songs among the activities that teach children about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

She continues, "Even young children are very candid about being hurtful, but it's much easier for them to forgive and forget about hard times than it is for adults." In the classroom each child is invited to write something on the blackboard that bothers them about themselves, and then erase it, a demonstration acknowledging what can be improved, and also of starting with a clean slate.

It is a celebration having nothing to do with exodus, siege, survival or miracle, but rather of the completion of the reading of the Torah, an occasion for individuals to access past thoughts and deeds, resolve to make a fresh beginning, and collectively ask for forgiveness. Other than Shabbat, the Sabbath, it is the holiest Jewish holiday. On Rosh Hashanah most of the day is spent in synagogue, using a special High Holiday prayer book.

Another popular observance during Rosh Hashanah is Tashlikh ("casting off") in which bread is cast upon the water to symbolize the casting off of sins, cleansing and starting fresh. This practice is not discussed in the Bible, but has become a long-standing custom. A family event, it will take place this year at Own Park beach in Vineyard Haven on Sunday following services.

In the two small crowded classrooms at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, two groups totaling about 30 children (preschool to first grade and second to seventh grade) convene to learn about Jewish traditions, observances, and holidays. Until the 1980s, the school was conducted by parents of the children enrolled. Now each class meets once a week, with another meeting Friday nights for young children while their parents attend erev Shabbat (the evening of Sabbath) services.

Taught by Ms. Cabot, Marsha Shufrin, and Lori-Sue Herman, the youngsters learn songs, stories, prayers and even ways to prepare traditional holiday dishes. They learn Hebrew words and, Ms. Cabot adds, "that there are no wrong answers when someone has the courage to talk about issues."

She explains that the High Holiday stories that are read are discussed and put into contemporary circumstances so students can make the connection between being a Jewish child on Martha's Vineyard and being part of the Jewish religion. "That's their journey, and the younger you start, the more comfortable they feel a part of the legacy. They are the ones who will be passing it all down to the next generation."

Ms. Cabot, who has a degree in early childhood education from Wheelock College, brings out apples and servings of honey, signifying a sweet year ahead, which the children prepare and arrange on trays and serve to each other, rather they making it for themselves. They make round challahs (bread) to signify that hope and renewal have no beginning and no ending, and eat pomegranates, a symbol of beauty and fertility, which one eats by discarding the bitter peel and selecting only the good seeds. And they learn to greet each other saying, "L'shanah tovah," meaning, "For a good year."

This year's theme, Ms. Cabot explains, is centered around acts of loving kindness in an effort to make a connection to each other and the community. At the core of the Hebrew school is kavod, the Hebrew word for respect, and one classroom exercise asks the children to think about what good deed they might do in the coming year. They are asked how they might nourish a plant, a person, the world. "Being a Jewish person doesn't just mean going to services," Ms. Cabot stresses. "It means learning about the values and the ways to take care of the community."

The students experience one of the most important observances of the holiday, the blowing the Shofar, ram's horn, which is used to awaken conscious thought, awareness, and repentance. It is blown in a series of blasts, each in different sequences. In the classroom the children discuss how their minds can often wander, and the Shofar is an announcing tool, saying "wake up," not only wake up from slumber, but wake up your mind, wake up internally. Ms. Cabot says, "Pay attention to what your mind is telling you is right."