The calendar at the Religious School at the Hebrew Center is booked solid with traditional celebrations for the next few weeks. The congregation celebrates Rosh Hashanah on Saturday, Sept. 16, followed by Yom Kippur on Sept. 25, Sukkot on Oct. 1, and Simchat Torah on Oct. 6. Each of these events holds its own meaning, I found out recently by speaking to Anita Smith, Religious School education director. She manages to make these High Holy Days come to life for the children at the Hebrew Center, so I knew if I asked her what they mean she could explain them in terms I would understand.
Let’s start with Rosh Hashanah. All I knew is that it is considered the Jewish New Year. Of course my idea of a New Year is fireworks, an excuse to eat Buffalo chicken dip, and a toast at midnight. Smith helped me out with this one.
“The Jewish calendar is based on the cycle of the moon, so this new year will begin with a full moon,” she explained. “It’s an opportunity for us to start over again.” I liked the sound of that. Who wouldn’t want a chance to begin anew every year?
“It’s a celebration of growth,” she said. “We take a look at the past year and take responsibility for our actions, and we take time to reconnect with family and friends. This whole time is just a time of deep personal reflection and contemplation and making amends. We work our way to Yom Kippur — the day of forgiving.”
For her students, Smith says, visuals play a key role in her teaching. Last year, they created a wall hanging that celebrated Hakarat Hatov, “noting the good,” she said, writing different ways they experienced good on sticky notes. Then the rest of the congregation added their own sticky notes to the wall.
They talk about some of the positive things they experienced over the past year, remember the times they did something nice for someone else, and then think about the times they maybe weren’t so nice to someone else, coming up with ideas on how they might do things differently or better this year. Maybe they could help feed their pets more, help out around the house, be kind to a brother or sister, or visit more with a grandparent.
“With Yom Kippur, our focus is on different ways we’ve messed up in the past year,” Smith said. “Maybe I didn’t feed my cat every day, like I said I would. I wasn’t as good about chores … We talk about those things and encourage them [the children], imagining growing into better people and the important role we each play in making the world a better place.”
Last year they talked about the “inside me and the outside me,” noting that what is in their hearts is important on the inside.
The tradition of Sukkot is one that I found really interesting, and once again something I was completely ignorant about.
“Sukkot is five days after Yom Kippur,” Smith explained. “It’s a harvest festival that is known as the time of our joy. Also it’s a celebration of all of the hard work that we did to turn ourselves around … the self-reflection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Now you can relax and embrace the simple joys.”
To do this traditionally, families and/or congregations build a little hut outdoors to be able to honor and replicate experiences from the Jewish past — desert encampments, tents used by farmers during the fall harvest in Israel. They’ll have one at the Hebrew Center made up of the wooden stock you might see with a trellis. Families construct one of their own out of bamboo or wood and canvas. It becomes the place they go to relax, visit, maybe eat outdoors in the Sukkot.
“It’s customary to decorate a Sukkot, so the kids will make fall decorations … hang fruits and gourds and paper chains and flowers.” This is something the young ones can really enjoy — the novelty of building a sort of fort, almost, and then decorating it together. I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy it too.
The last fall holiday is Simchat Torah, which celebrates and marks the end of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle. I was just amazed to hear that in the Jewish religion, they make it through the whole Torah each and every single year. This relates in my mind to the concept that every year is another chance to look at things differently, to respond to things differently, and to renew your own commitment to your faith, family, community, and the rest of the world.
“Every year the hope is that stories in the Torah challenge us in new ways, and through those experiences we grow as a person. You start over every year with a fresh perspective and a new lease on life,” Smith said.
“When we come together in community, we recognize the importance of community as a reminder of my role in the world, in my family, with my friends. Am I doing a good job? Am I a good friend? Am I a good listener? We talk about it with the children. What were you proud of this year? How were you a good friend; were you a good sister? What can you do to make it even better?”
It’s about opening yourself up to new possibilities, Anita told me, about being open to self-exploration. What I learned is that there are aspects of Judaism that make a whole lot of sense. It’s a religion where I can grasp how the traditions help keep you grounded, and one that shows mercy year after year, while helping us to move forward at the same time.
This fall at the Hebrew Center, the services include a Rosh Hashanah celebration on Saturday, Sept. 16, from 10 am to 12 pm for ages 5 and up, with art, music, holiday activities, and a festive lunch. Yom Kippur is recognized on Monday, Sept. 25, from 10 am to 12 pm, with more activities. Soup in the Sukkot happens on Sunday, Oct. 1, from 1 to 3 pm, also with crafts to decorate the Sukkot. Dancing, dinner, and holiday activities wrap up on Friday, Oct. 6, at 5:30 pm with Simchat Torah.
Everyone is welcome to learn more about the high holidays and about Judaism. I know I sure learned a lot from having a great conversation with Anita Smith.