Category Archives: 5775

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Yom Kippur Redux

October 5, 2014

Yom Kippur Redux

Finally, the following afternoon, I’m beginning to recover from Yom Kippur. It was very successful. Some people apparently walked an hour in each direction to participate in our services. I was extremely humbled by this effort. We had record crowds for each of the three highlights (Kol Nidrei, Yizkor and Neila) – I estimate around 800 for the first two and perhaps close to one thousand for Neila, including about 100 children that joined me on stage for the end of Neila. The synagogue was full and stirring with energy.

More people stayed longer, and there seemed to be a significant number of younger people than the previous year. I spoke throughout the day. I interrupted the Hazan approximately every ten minutes with introductions and explanations as to where we were or what we were doing in the prayer or Torah reading. We also skipped a lot of the liturgy as I wrote about before. That was besides the three major sermons and conducting a 3-hour question and answer session during the break. I also had to read the Torah, Haftara, Sefer Yona and serve as Gabbai and page announcer. At some points during Minha and Neila I thought I would faint or collapse. Some divine spirit kept me going, gave my mind inspiration to address the congregation and my voice strength to reach the rafters.

I was happiest about involving the children in the recitation of the final verses before blowing the shofar. Second to that was having successfully gotten the Hazan and the choir to sing my favorite Yom Kippur song, Mare Kohen. Noise throughout the day was down to a bare minimum, I think mostly because of my interruptions and an extreme preoccupation to keep things moving and interesting. It probably didn’t hurt that I invited talkers to leave, and threatened to ask them personally if they persisted in talking. A few probably remembered that I kicked them out the previous year. Just eying them this year was enough. I announced the upcoming Shabbat Project before each sermon.

I have also been blessed with the friendship and presence of Bernardo Olesker, one of the great community leaders and the acknowledged “greatest orator of the community”. He sits in the front row and always gives me valuable feedback on my talks. When he compliments me, I know I’ve done well. When he asks for a repeat of something I’ve said, I know I’ve struck a chord. He particularly liked my Yizkor talk where I permitted people whose parents weren’t dead to stay in and to say liturgy for grandparents, martyrs and other loved ones. I asked not only what memory we had of our ancestors but what memories we would leave our descendants and to consider who would be saying Yizkor for us. That seemed to move a number of people.

Many more people were praying, focusing in the Machzor, turning the pages, beating their chest, responding when I waved my flag and in general participating and being a part of the service, as compared to last year. A cellphone did not ring once throughout the day – repeated warnings probably helped as well.

However, right after Yom Kippur, my brain synapses finally burnt out. I could no longer answer simple questions, contemplate any decisions or pronounce more than monosyllables (no Mom, don’t worry – it wasn’t a stroke or anything of that kind). In our cab ride from the hotel (which due to a last minute glich, we were upgraded to) to our wider Spitz family Break-Fast, I contemplated a career as a taxi driver as a suitable aspiration for my mental and decision-making capacities. I was feeling extreme Decision Fatigue.

However, overall, it was really good. Thank God.

Now I’m looking forward to my next big and totally different event. I’m giving a lecture to over 300 South American engineers on my thoughts on Reliability Engineering, featuring movie clips from Armageddon and I Love Lucy…

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Divine Shofar-Blasts

September 29, 2014

Divine Shofar-Blasts

Experience is the greatest teacher. 25 years ago, I worked as the youth director at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, under the leadership of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. Rabbi Lookstein, at the end of every major event would review our activities and asked what we could do better. He would write it down and then review it in time to make the following year’s event even better.

Last Rosh Hashana, morning prayers were called for 9am and we only had a minyan (a quorum of ten men necessary to start the prayers) after 10:30am. Last year, there was a large lag between the time when those called had to open the Ark and when they actually did it. While it had been considered a successful Rosh Hashana, I made notes to myself how to make it better. We needed a better page-turning announcement system. I needed a Gabai (someone to call people to the reading of the Torah). Perhaps the biggest fault was last year’s shofar-blower (me). I had never blown the shofar before, and while I did it correctly, it was a sometimes painful process for those listening.

This year I called morning prayers for 10am. By 10:05 we had a minyan and were moving through the prayer service. I had come up with a system to reduce to zero the wait before opening the Ark. The page-turning worked out better (still needs some work) and I got a Gabai. During my recent trip to Israel, I had the chance to sit with my Rabbi, Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon of Alon Shvut. He edited a special Machzor (the prayer book for the High Holidays) for Israeli soldiers and mothers staying at home with their children. He highlighted the bare minimum of prayers that needed to be said, what prayers can only be said with a minyan and which don’t need one. I explained to him that I had an entire congregation that was less than enthused with the quantity of prayers. We went through each page of the Machzor and determined what we should say and what we could skip. It was a significant amount.

Another innovation that we imported from Israel was to have a Kiddush (refreshments) to break up the long service.

Finally, and most importantly, we got someone new to blow the shofar.

We finished the first part of the prayer service at 11:30am and proceeded to the Kiddush as scheduled. The Kiddush was a great joy to the congregation and attracted many participants who socialized freely and unrestrained by an ongoing prayer service.

At 12 noon, we convened back in the synagogue, I gave my speech and then we heard the shofar. The shofar blower is a young man who hadn’t blown the shofar before for Rosh Hashana. He was concerned as to his spiritual suitability for the task. He studied the laws and consulted with multiple Rabbis. He went to the Mikveh (ritual bath). He prepared himself mentally and spiritually for the big responsibility of blowing the shofar for the congregation. I think he took the idea of Teshuva, of repentance, very seriously. He was completely focused. He didn’t talk or chit-chat with anyone before or after his part.

And then he blew the shofar. It was clear. It was strong. It was perfect. He didn’t need to repeat one note due to error. At the end of each series of blasts, there is the Tekia Gedola, a long continuous blast that seemed to last forever. The sound incredibly expanded with each passing second. One could feel the heavens opening up to hear the blast and our accompanying prayers. In all my years of attending Rosh Hashana services around the world, I cannot recall a more powerful, moving, spiritually charged shofar blowing act than what we just had in Montevideo.