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High Holy Days Offer Profound Challenge to Remake Oneself

Rosh Hashanah: Hours spent in temple can be an empty experience unless accompanied by soul-searching, rabbis say.


Although Rosh Hashanah does not begin until sundown Friday, the resonant tones of the ancient shofar have been blaring for weeks in local synagogues.

The blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn, signals the start of the Jewish High Holy Days. But it also heralds the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, and ushers in the monthlong period traditionally set aside for preparation for the holidays, the most sacred in the Jewish calendar.

That preparation involves little in the way of menu planning or party-going. Instead, it is time of self-study and reflection, and local rabbis are making an effort to drive that message home to their congregations.

"We don't mean what you're going to make for dinner or whether your tickets [to synagogue services] have arrived or what you're going to wear to services," Rabbi Jim Kaufman told his congregation at Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood. "We're talking about personal and spiritual preparation."

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, when it is said that God inscribes each person's fortune for the coming year based on his or her conduct in the past year. It marks the opening of the "10 Days of Repentance" during which Jews attend temple services and ask forgiveness of God and their colleagues for any wrongs they may have committed.

But the hours spent in temple during the holidays can be an empty experience for Jews who have not given much thought to issues of repentance and forgiveness, Kaufman said.

Although most Jews do not observe the month of spiritual preparation that leads to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many do find themselves thinking about the larger issues of spirituality as the holidays approach.

Many set aside private moments during which to contemplate their relationship to religion, to the synagogue, to prayer. Others read books or seek out films that have spiritual meaning to them.

And for those who seek a more structured and communal approach, the University of Judaism offers a series of lectures and discussion groups--presided over by prominent Los Angeles rabbis from all Jewish denominations--that focus on preparing for the holidays.

The classes have been offered several years through the university's continuing education department and draw hundreds each year to the Westside institution.

Holly Barratt, a Chatsworth psychologist who attended one of the sessions three years ago, said the class "brought home the importance of self-accounting at this time of the year and made the holidays more personal."

"In addition to instruction for the liturgy, the rabbis had us run the previous year in our minds and stop whenever there was a moment of discomfort, and explore that and try to figure out the problem," she said.

That kind of self-accounting gave her the feeling "of getting oneself ready to do something big," she said, and intensified her feeling that "the pipeline to the divine is never more open than when you open the prayer book at temple during the holidays."

The remaking of the self is one of the primary objectives of the High Holy Days, one that offers a profound challenge to observant Jews.

"I've been conducting services for the last 46 years," said Rabbi Michael Roth of Studio City's Congregation Beth Ohr, "and I can never rid myself of the anguish I experience before the holidays."

"How will I convey to another fellow worshiper how to remake himself or herself? How can I touch them so that they will know which direction to take."

Roth called that transformation a lofty goal that few attain. "I personally don't remember ever seeing an individual who has remade himself after the holidays," he said. "For myself, I recognize I remain the same schmo I was before the holidays."

Still, Roth said, the significance of the act is in the trying. "What counts," he said, "is that period of time when we are concentrating on the effort. Even if it doesn't work, at least we've known as individuals and as a community, that concentration, that attention."

In fact, rabbis say, the act of going to temple for holiday services can be reduced to a meaningless exercise if attendance is not accompanied by soul-searching and self-study.

"It is not enough to attend and observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services," said Rabbi Mordechai Finley of the Westwood congregation Ohr HaTorah. "It is our duty at this time of the year to work toward transformation and growth."

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