Reflection and Renewal
There’s something about the passing of the years. Attending services on Rosh Hashanah was always a big deal, I suppose. Thinking back on my childhood, the High Holidays stand out. The synagogue was full to overflowing. Seats were assigned. The hazzan (cantor) and the choir filled the room with music, at once haunting and powerful. The rabbi spoke of repentance, forgiveness, and renewal. A Book of Life and those whose names would be inscribed therein by God. The pageantry as much as anything else made those days so memorable.
Still, it was one thing to experience the High Holidays as a kid and quite another as the years went by. With the passage of time, I find myself increasingly reflective. Perhaps I hear more as I get older. Or maybe I’ve simply become a better listener. So it was this week that during the course of Rosh Hashanah, as Cantor Wolff-Hanan chanted the powerful melodies, the notes soulfully rising into the rafters of our chapel, I considered anew the significance of Hineni |הינני (Here I stand) and Unetaneh Tokef |ונתנה תקף (the sacred power of the day).
Hineni is about leadership. A voice on behalf of the congregation—the community, humble and contrite, aspiring to worthiness. As its spokesperson, the cantor serves with abounding dedication. Unetaneh Tokef acknowledges that each of us, irrespective of station, stands in judgment at this turning point in the Jewish year. Tradition holds that our fate in the year ahead is still to be determined. On Rosh Hashanah it was written, and in a few days, on Yom Kippur, it will be sealed. In between are the 10 days of t’shuvah |תשובה (repentance) during which we still have influence over how it will turn out.
T’shuvah. That’s what I found myself thinking about, not only during the service but also in the days since. It’s about seeking forgiveness for transgressions, real and perceived. And it’s about granting forgiveness in turn, most certainly when such forgiveness is sought, but similarly, I have come to believe, even when it isn’t.
The year just ended, 5781, was notable in ways too numerous to count. It was a year of extraordinary resilience. Communities banded together in moments of crisis that showed us at our very best. It was a year that witnessed the rewards of extraordinary perseverance, perhaps no more poignantly than during the moment of silence finally offered in memory of the Munich 11 at the recently concluded Tokyo Olympic Games—marking the culmination of a 49-year campaign by the victims’ families and their legions of supporters across our movement and around the world.
The pandemic raged on. Division and polarization continued to define America, notwithstanding a change in administration. Terrorists murdered innocents, soldiers, and civilians in Israel and Afghanistan. Natural disasters— wildfires, hurricanes and flooding of epic dimensions—once again plagued us. As it drew to a close, 5781, it seems, left far too many in a state of unease and discontent, too readily casting aspersions upon those deemed responsible for any prevailing unpleasantness.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I found myself particularly drawn to what some might consider the most important line of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer: But t’shuvah (repentance), t’fillah (prayer) and tzedakah (righteous deeds) have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny— ותפילה וצגקה צעבירין את-רע הגזרה ותשובה
And the process is fairly straightforward: Seek forgiveness from those we may have wronged. Seek wisdom and inspiration through prayer. And do good. That’s all.
Nowhere on this short list of actions and deeds we can undertake to alter the course of our fate in the year ahead do we find expressions of condemnation or recrimination or acts of retribution. Perhaps it is precisely this about which we are to be reminded during these first of the Yamim Nora’im | ימים נורעים (the Days of Awe).
The final days of 5781 found me reaching out to those across our field who had suffered damage and loss from Hurricane Ida, the leadership of the New Orleans JCC chief among them. The agency was relatively fortunate. Though the building remains without power, damage was modest, and the staff drew strength from others in the field who had overcome such hardships in the past, including, according to CEO Leslie Fischman, the remarkable Jewish community of Houston, Texas.
On behalf of JCC Association of North America, I wish to underscore our unbridled commitment to extend every resource at our disposal to assist our friends in New Orleans and all those striving to recover from the recent storm. I offer heartfelt gratitude to the people of Houston and to everyone who has reached out to those in need in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.
These extraordinary days should remind us that despite our best efforts and intentions, we do, at times, fall short. However, if we are prepared to reflect upon our own actions and words, and if we are willing to seek the forbearance and understanding of others, we can renew a commitment to work toward something better. Aspire to something more. And fulfill our responsibilities to one another—all in pursuit of greater Jewish community and more vibrant Jewish life in the New Year and beyond.
G’mar hatima tovah |גמר חתימה טובה (May you be sealed for good in the Book of Life).
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America