Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Spotlight Yom Kippur

September 15, 2013

Spotlight Yom Kippur

I was literally in the spotlight. The shul was well lit, however, where I sat on the podium there was a spotlight pointed directly on me. It was only blinding if I looked at it or within ten degrees of it. It only inhibited eye contact with a small percentage of the women on the upper level of the shul, but nonetheless I pointed my head in that direction from time to time during my multiple speaking occasions.

Kol Nidrei started with taking out of about twenty Torah scrolls. It was a long process as each dignitary and honoree was called up slowly by name. It is interesting how different people have different memories of the same Yom Kippur. Listening to one opinion about past practices I led the procession of Torah scrolls through the synagogue. Then, with the blessing and encouragement of the president of the community we all climbed the stairs to the women’s section above. The twenty scrolls dispersed amongst the large women’s section to the extreme delight of the female participants. They touched and kissed the Torah lovingly, some of them clearly emotional, their eyes moistening.

Besides introducing Kol Nidrei, the importance of ones words, and Yom Kippur, I recreated the flag-waving verse repetition to a larger crowd. Worked well. Big crowd. All very happy. Netanel was again an integral and successful part of the choir.

I could tell that a significant part of the crowd was not ecstatic with the Kol Nidrei liturgy, especially the younger contingent, usually accompanying parents or grandparents. I explained that once-upon-a-time in New York the bagel was considered a particularly Jewish food. To eat a bagel was to connect with one’s Judaism. But that is superficial. I asked that coming to shul on Yom Kippur shouldn’t be like having a bagel. Our Judaism should not be defined by listening to what one considers unfamiliar alien music. Judaism is significantly deeper and more meaningful than that. Some people seemed to squirm a bit as if I had touched a raw nerve, others nodded in agreement, others I think either weren’t listening, didn’t understand what I was saying or were thinking fondly of eating bagels.

We slept in my office in the synagogue building. Comfortable during the day, but not designed for sleeping – need to remember for next year.

Morning services called for 8:30am, no minyan until 10:00am, even though composed almost exclusively of staff. Next year just need to start at 10 or 10:30.

While the Hazan handled the prayer part, I managed everything else. I’m realizing that even more critical then someone to read the Torah is actually a Gabai, someone to call people up, to tell people when to open the ark, when to close it, to be on top of what page the Hazan is up to and the general smooth handling and connection of the audience to what the Hazan is doing, especially when the audience is so unfamiliar with the rituals. Note to self: arrange top-notch experienced Gabai/ark caller-upper/page announcer.

The Torah reading led to some technical excitement. It turns out the second Torah we took out from the Ark was pasul (not kosher). We needed to return it to the Ark and we rolled the first one from where we read in the Book of Leviticus until the Book of Numbers. It was a teachable moment, as we rolled the Torah I explained the technicalities to the surprise and education of most of the congregants.

I interspersed more comments and explanations during the prayer. For Yizkor, the second crowd-graber, I had the honor of introducing three speakers: a representative of Keren Hayesod; the head of the department for the disabled, who herself is a disabled woman with an incredibly inspiring story; and finally the Ambassador of Israel.

Immediately after Yizkor a lot of people made for the doors. Many of them congregated near the back, talking. I thanked all the Yizkor-comers for coming and asked them that if they were finished, they should leave to let us continue with the prayers. The shul quieted noticeably, but not enough for my liking. I got off the podium, walked to the back of the shul and accosted three different groups of talkers, asking them politely that if they wished to continue talking, they should go out. They each apologized and left.

I returned to the podium. The noise level was much improved, but still not sufficient. I spoke again, saying there were currently four types of people in the shul: Those that want to pray, those that want to talk, those that want to talk and pray, and the fourth, those that are working. I suggested a deal. I would give those that wanted to talk two minutes to finish their business and afterwards they would be quiet. The crowd looked at me in utter confusion, much quieter than before, though some understood right away and continued talking. In order to show that I was serious and to encourage the now quieter members to talk, I descended from the podium and announced I would talk with my friend, Bernardo Olesker, one of the senior people of the community. He was thrilled and I sat next to him. Conversation ensued all around. A young man, one of the principles of the local Hillel movement came over and asked if he could have one of the two minutes. Bernardo protested saying he would owe him the minute. We spoke briefly, but then the Hazan tired of all my shenanigans started the Musaf prayer. I returned to the podium to a much quieter shul.

We finished Musaf around 2pm. Together with the president and his wife we walked to a nearby shul, Vaad Ha’ir, which I had promised to visit after Yizkor, but which totally escaped my mind and wouldn’t have been good in any case, given the extent of my involvement throughout the prayer service. Vaad Ha’ir is a very pretty synagogue built in a very European style. It is actually legally a protected historic site in Uruguay. A little bit more than a minyan was present for the Musaf service.

I made it back to shul in time for the now-famous Marijuana round-table. While everyone was very happy with all of the prayer services, numbers up, significant congregant participation and satisfaction — “the best Yom Kippur in many years”, the Marijuana panel was a wonderful success. What was typically a quiet interlude with 15 drowsy men became a community event with more than 60, most of which came especially for the event and some of who had not been inside a shul for many, many years. Men and women of all ages and Jewish affiliations arrived for a passionate presentation about the reality and dangers of substance abuse and what Judaism has to say about it.

The conclusion that both me and my co-panelist came to is that the law for legalization of marijuana is neither an important nor significant factor in the fight against substance abuse and addiction. Addicts will continue to get their drugs. How exactly the law will be implemented and what the ramifications and repercussions will be, no one knows for sure. The people most at risk for both long-term addictions and neurological damage are teenagers. The most important factor to keep a teenager or any other person away from damaging substances and habits is a strong home atmosphere. If a child has good examples, a loving, nurturing, caring, quality attention-giving environment, they will be less susceptible to seek to self-medicate the existential pain of loneliness, confusion, lack of clear identity, low self-esteem and the spectrum of angst that people from difficult homes carry.

Some participants claimed that “marijuana is the door to all drugs”. I responded that “the home is the door to all drugs”. If parents and grandparents can’t be a significant positive part of their children’s lives, no law, however well-intentioned will protect them. We cannot cede responsibility of our children’s lives, education and maturation to schools, youth organizations or the government. They can never replace a parent’s role.

We plumbed the depths of the steps that lead from experimentation to recreational use, to abuse and dependency. We covered a gamut of related Torah themes including the restrictions on damaging oneself, the sin of not enjoying permitted aspects of our world, the Torah view on legalized abortion, and much more. The discussion carried over for more than the hour and a half we had allotted, with incisive questions and lively discussion. Participants walked away educated, thoughtful and perhaps even inspired. For some people this was the most meaningful part of the fast and I think of much greater quality than listening to mostly incomprehensible prayers. I’m thinking to make more changes to the mix of prayers and education for the coming year.

The Minha prayer had the great story of Jonah and the Whale which I summarized before the reading. The crowd grew as we got closer to Neilah. I introduced the president of the community, Alberto Buzcaniek, who spoke before the repetition of Neilah and then it was my turn.

After almost 25 hours in the synagogue I was struck by the phenomena of the people flooding in for the three “highlights” of Kol Nidrei, Yizkor and Neilah. It made me think of skipping stones. Of stones moving at high speed, skimming the surface of the water, bouncing lightly off the ocean. Then it made me think of a powerful story by one of my most favorite authors, science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card.

I recounted his story where he tells of a future where mankind has perfected the ability to cryogenically freeze people. People can go to sleep for days, weeks, years, decades and wake up without aging a second. It was of course an expensive process available only to the wealthy. They took advantage of it, slowing down time. Remaining young while their friends and family aged. In the space of one day a year they could catch up on all the latest news, meet the people they needed to meet and remain youthful and vigorous as those around them grew weary and old. There developed a group of the exceedingly rich who would push the limits of this technology, sleeping for years, for decades, remaining eternally young, global superstars, paparazzi favorites, witnesses of history. The momentous days of their awakening were frenzied, event-filled media super-productions. They lived for centuries this way, until one day they realized that they hadn’t really lived at all. Their lives had become superficial, meaningless, lacking relationships, friendships, depth, presence.

I warned that we must beware of superficiality. In our lives, with our families, friends, children, work and even religion. Then I got into the speech I had prepared. What gave me the right to stand in front of this audience spewing ideas and claiming they were Torah-inspired, Torah-based.

As I was talking, our staff was handing out a rolled up paper tied in a blue ribbon to each congregant. I instructed everyone to remove the ribbon and open the three page-long scroll. It was a list with 130 names on it. The first name was Moshe (Moses). The second was Joshua. The third was his disciple and then the next disciple and then the next. The list was an unbroken chain of tradition, of the conveyance of rabbinic conferment from rabbi to student for the last 3,300 years until today. The last name on the list was mine. The list was published by a student of the Rabbi who gave me my ordination. I substituted my name and translated it to Spanish. The chain of tradition is what gives me the right and the authority to stand up and say words of Torah to the congregation.

But I am only a link in the chain of tradition, and I know that my mission is to not be the last link. I then pointed at the audience. Each and every one of you are links in your families and of our people. And we must continue the chain of tradition.

At this point the shul was filling to capacity (1,000) with more people streaming in. I gave some technical pointers and explanations regarding the Hazan’s repetition of the Neilah and then we commenced.

I explained again the importance of the one verse we would repeat over and over the next few minutes. I had the crowd repeat slowly with me, word by word. I waved my flag at each instance the verse arose as the choir together with the congregants sang the stirring melody.

And then before I knew it we were at the end. I had been watching my watch closely, trying to plan that we didn’t end too early or too late. There was just half a page left to the services (isn’t that how we measure time on Yom Kippur?) I stopped the Hazan. I said, pleaded, that we just have a few seconds left to Yom Kippur. A verse, a word, a thought can make a difference. Let us make it a good one.

The entire congregation said the fundamental Jewish verse of “Shma Yisrael” together. We said with the Hazan the two other verses at the end. I had explained the story of the very last verse that “God is the God!” of the prophet Elijah’s miraculous success in his sacrificial battle with the false Baalite prophets of evil Queen Jezebel. How by repeating the verse seven times we are escorting God from his proximate, intimate presence amongst us back up through seven heavens to his normal abode above.

As if to continue my thoughts of Orson Scott Card, an army of children marched into shul waving LED flashlights (Card is the author of Ender’s Game, a classic sci-fi book now a major motion picture, starring Harrison Ford, coming soon to a theatre near you). They marched right onto the podium with me, filling it from one end of the large hall to the other. The lights were turned off. The shofar blew. The choir and the crowd sang “le’shana ha’bah be’yerushalayim” (Next Year in Jerusalem). Then the entire congregation, having been on its feet the whole Neilah service, sang “Hatikvah”, the Israeli national anthem with great force and emotion. At the end, people hugged and cried for joy. Food appeared out of pocket and candies rained from above.

There was an excited rush to the doors. The Hazan yelled out “Havdalah!” (the “Separation” ceremony that must be done at the end of the Sabbath and Holidays). From 1,000 people we had a little bit over a minyan left. The Hazan did Havdalah and then I led a quick Maariv prayer, letting the choir and others who stayed for me go home with limited wait.

As I’m preparing to leave, a young mother with two young children comes up to me and begs forgiveness for having arrived late and if I could blow the shofar and bless the children. With a very dry mouth I blew the shofar and gave the traditional blessing of the sons on her young boy and girl. She was so thankful, I thought she would break out in tears.

I was complemented and congratulated by whoever could get my attention for a fantastic Yom Kippur. They were happy, inspired, educated, entertained, challenged, reprimanded, and quieted like they hadn’t been in a long time. People who hadn’t come in years came because of the publicity, and the word of the young, charismatic Rabbi. People who came for just a bit promised they would come for more next year.

Later on I got text messages from friends who had heard from their relatives how good the services had been and commenting on the new Rabbi.

It had been a fantastic success. The president of the community was beaming. All had complemented him on his choice of Rabbi. But I felt lacking for completely personal reasons.

It was my first Public Yom Kippur where previously I had spent a lifetime experiencing Private Yom Kippurs. I like the Private Yom Kippur. I like the quiet introspection. I like the deep soul-searching. I like finding meaning in the prayers. I like being uplifted by the songs. I like focusing on my inner self. I had very little of it this year.

I had to think of what I would say next and when. I had to gauge the feeling of the congregants. Were they with us or not? Were they distracted, bored? When was the level of talking too much and when did I need to intervene? What page was the Hazan at and had the page-changer noticed and turned the large numbers on the podium to the right page? That and so many other thoughts and concerns for the congregation distracted me even during my quiet private prayers, which I didn’t want to prolong as I knew the Hazan was waiting just for me in order to start reciting the repetition of the prayer.

But then I figured that’s part of being a Rabbi. Thinking of the congregation. Concern for the congregation often overrides personal concerns. So what if I was tired and hungry and my head was throbbing. Where in the past I would have put my head down, now I had a job to do. I pulled from the inner recesses of my mind memories of previous Yom Kippurs. Of the tunes I loved that we had skipped. Of the Rabbis I had heard who had inspired me. Of the powerful prayers in Yeshiva with hundreds of voices singing and understanding and meaning the words they are shouting to God.

But I had my small victories, my small reminders of my Private Yom Kippurs. I had taught the Hazan my favorite song, “Mareh Cohen” and together we attempted to teach it to the congregation, with some people picking up the tune.

At the very end, at the final Maariv, after Havdalah, after 1,000 people had left the synagogue, I gave a short speech to the bare minyan we had. I said this is the first prayer after Yom Kippur – let’s make it a good one. And one man, someone who hadn’t prayed the entire Yom Kippur, opened up his siddur and prayed. I guess a Public Yom Kippur means engendering other Private Yom Kippurs.

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