The Lowdown on Ritual and Worship

“Why are Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur so important to my Jewish partner? He almost never attends services the rest of the year, isn’t observant and doesn’t even know what he believes about God. Yet, at this time of year, he insists on attending services. What’s the big deal with these holidays?”

There are both “official” and “unofficial” answers to these questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the unofficial explanations are often the more significant ones. The official answers (to which I’ll return shortly) speak in terms like judgment, sin, repentance, life and death. The unofficial answers have something to do with the complicated puzzle of American Jewish identity.

For many Jews in this country, attending High Holiday services (particularly, the first evening service of Yom Kippur) is a way of affirming that we still are part of the Jewish people, a way of demonstrating that we haven’t yielded to assimilation or broken the ancient chain of the Jewish people’s survival and continuity. Being with our people at services says: No matter how far we may have drifted from active involvement with Judaism, we’re still proud to be Jews. We still care about being Jewish — even if we’re not very religious and are not sure how we feel about the content of those services. Many times, our participation also says that we’re still connected with the values of parents and grandparents, for whom our attendance (or absence!) is a very powerful symbol.

Notice that these “unofficial” answers have little to do with theology or even with the religious significance of the prayers and rituals. That’s because for many American Jews, their “Jewishness” is not first and foremost a matter of religion. Many American Jews will tell you that their Jewish identity is primarily ethnic or cultural or communal. They speak about Jewish holiday customs or Jewish ethical values or a feeling of connection they associate with being Jewish that seems, to them, to be somewhat separate from the Jewish religion. What’s important for understanding this High Holiday commitment is that in the mind of your loved one, the urgency of attending services may not be primarily about the religious significance of the ritual.

Nonetheless, if you will be joining your partner to sit through an unusually long and crowded synagogue service, you might want to know a little more about what to expect and what the ritual means officially. For most Jews, the term, “High Holidays” is the title given to a period of 10 days that stretch between the holy day of Rosh Hashanah — which means, literally, head of the year — and Yom Kippur — the day of atonement. Both holy days have their earliest roots in the Torah, although the name, “Rosh Hashanah,” was not used until significantly later in Jewish history.

Rosh Hashanah ushers in the Jewish New Year (on our calendar, the coming year is 5766) and with it a period of profound self-examination and repentance. It is, therefore, a day of joyous celebration balanced against a humbling and solemn consideration of how well (or poorly) we have used the gift of the previous year. Tradition teaches that God judges each of us individually and our community as a whole on Rosh Hashanah. Tradition also teaches that the result of God’s judgment will be a matter of life and death (either figurative or literal, depending on your theological orientation). Our prayers, songs and rituals, therefore, focus on confessing the ways in which we’ve gone astray, asking forgiveness for occasions on which we’ve missed the mark, and committing ourselves to acts of repentance (teshuvah).

We go through this process collectively. We ask for forgiveness and repent almost exclusively in the first person plural! This use of “we” vs. “I” reflects Judaism’s emphasis on community. Our first concern is how well the Jewish community as a whole has fulfilled its covenant with God. Our first responsibility is to live in such a way that we help the community be the kind of holy people God has challenged us to become. Of course, our Rosh Hashanah observances also celebrate the possibility of a new beginning that comes with the new year — God’s gift to us if we engage in this cleansing process with sincerity.

Some distinctive observances to watch and listen for on Rosh Hashanah: the extensive ritual for sounding of the shofar during the morning service, which is mandated by the Torah and serves as a deeply moving call to renewed awareness and action; eating apples and honey for a sweet year, and greeting others by expressing the hope that they will be judged for a shanah tovah. Depending on the congregation you join, you also may participate in tashlich ceremony in which we symbolically cast away our sins by throwing bread crumbs (or other, less traditional things such as little stones) into a body of water.

Yom Kippur begins in the evening 10 days later. Its mood is one of deep solemnity, contrition and humility. According to tradition, the judgments begun on Rosh Hashanah are sealed and finalized on Yom Kippur. Because Leviticus (23:27) instructs that self-affliction should be part of this day dedicated to repentance, most Jews will observe a complete fast for at least part of the day. In fact, many will spend almost the entire day at the synagogue engaged in fasting, prayer, reflection and repentance. The observance ends with the setting of the sun, a final sounding of the shofar — dramatically marking the end of this intensely spiritual day and as a reminder of ancient practice in the Jerusalem Temple–and then, gatherings to break the fast together.

Yom Kippur’s opening evening service centers on an ancient formula known as Kol Nidre, which absolves us of vows and oaths we may take between this Yom Kippur and the next one. I suspect that the prayer is revered as much for its haunting and powerful music as for its somewhat complicated message.

While Yom Kippur services vary, all will focus on communal confessions and introspection, requests for forgiveness and the effort to obtain perspective on our present lives by placing them in the context of the past. More specifically, synagogues hold a special Yizkor service to honor loved ones who have died and to gain important insights from both their lives and deaths. Many synagogues also honor the martyrs of the Jewish people throughout history and, again, seek to learn important lessons from the humbling example of their sacrifices. Then, as Yom Kippur draws to a close, the observance concludes with the Neilah, or locking, service — a final chance to repent before the symbolic gates of repentance are closed and locked.

Of course, there are many interesting and important details for which I haven’t had room here. For now, let me be one of the first to wish you a year that is healthy, happy and fulfilling. Shanah tovah!

Article courtesy

Finding Community

Synagogue is never mentioned in the Torah. — Leo Rosten

Like many unaffiliated Angelenos between 30 and marriage, I face a problem every Rosh: How to benefit from this diverse Jewish community while remaining a sort of post-sect/noninstitutionalized member of the family. Intending to find and feel the most righteous things I can, I plan on attending four or five houses of worship over the 10 days of atunement (a word I heard from a New Yorker suggesting letting 3,000 shofars boom at Ground Zero as a wake-up cry).

Where can a single, grazing Jew-without-portfolio go to seek some awe and a cheap place to pray? The first of Tishrei will find me among redwoods in a sloping garden behind the Zen Center of Los Angeles on Normandie Avenue. A shul grows in Koreatown!

The rabbi there is given to delightfully long, serene silences. He lets the smell of the damp trees and a paper handout with a Bal Shem Tov story awaken something within us. What is it about the “Avinu Malkeinu” that taps into our collective unconscious so sacredly? Family memories overwhelm me as the rabbi talks about 2,600 years ago, when Jeremiah saw a friend crying after the destruction by the Babylonians and exhorted to him: “You have your life!”

I wonder what the neighborhood thinks when they hear the blast of the shofar, but I don’t get paranoid about it. As a breeze blows through the Normandie garden, women pull shawls over the heads of their babies, making them look like tiny Muslims. I’ll take that as a good sign.

On Tashlich I like to take part in an annual tradition on the Santa Monica-Venice border. Everyone on the Westside goes down to the sea to cast off bread I believe they buy at Trader Joe’s. They chant for the great ocean (“Oseh ha yam hagadol!”) and watch the gulls try to grab the hunks before the waves send thick, gooey globs — “my sins?” — back to shore. One can see chaverim from different Santa Monica houses of worship gathered on the beach north to Malibu. Imagine 100 years ago celebrating here like this. What a shtetl! Do the rituals make a community? In Jewish tradition, the community is responsible as long as even one sinner is left on earth.

Watching families dancing, singing and picnicking on the sand, I will desire the living drama of a Brechtian Jewish wife. I’ll covet one, even. Kids maybe, too.

The 3rd of Tishri is called the Fast of Gedaliah, but I don’t know what that means so will no doubt not observe. On the 9th, I’ll be at the Directors’ Guild Association on Sunset Boulevard for Kol Nidre. Theater One is usually full, so in Theater Two they beam in the rabbi on a 50-foot screen.

The Directors’ Guild influence gives the whole presentation a more dramatic flair. Just the right amount of over-the-top Hollywood progressive prayer to tickle your Yiddishkayt, or set your tuchus on edge, if you know what I mean. Announcements for seminars at Esalen (“Course books are available in the lobby”) can be way too-L.A. for all but the most nonpraying customer.

For Neilah I like to attend the Laugh Factory, just a breezy walk down Sunset Boulevard. A true “only in Los Angeles” — comedy club converted into synagogue.

Hot and packed with the poor and the humorous, the miskayt and the unaffiliated, it looks like Prague in the 1400s and smells like old sugary club hooch stuck to your shoe. The macher of the place stands in the back like my uncles Louie and Willie Kimmell used to stand at the back of their moviehouse in Royal Oak outside Detroit. There may be one joke circulating about “Bush Hashanah,” but most remains appropriately solemn and spirited and actually quite rejoicing. A folksy, guitar-accompanied “Aleinu” usually gets everyone going.

High Holiday prayer is a mix of faith and memory, openness and solace.

There will be stirring Holocaust readings, and at least one rabbi will lay into us pretty good. One may say the message of Yom Kippur is: “We are our own best destiny!” Another says Jews attend services every New Year “with so many questions.” I disagree. I think I go because this is where I know I’ll find answers. This year I can add to the Book of Life instead of just showing up on page 5764. Otherwise, why bother showing up at all? That would be so 5763, wouldn’t it?

Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller on public radio’s “All Things Considered” and “The Savvy Traveler.”

Congregational Directory

The listings below are for Jewish congregations within the geographic area of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Congregations in areas adjacent to Los Angeles Federation can be found by calling neighboring federations:

San Gabriel Valley: Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys at (626) 967-3656;

Southeastern Los Angeles County: Jewish Federation of Greater Long Beach and West Orange County at (562) 426-7601, ext. 1314 or 1008;

The Internet is a great tool to use in screening synagogues. Many, many congregations have Web sites, as do the national offices of the major Jewish movements (which have links to those synagogues with Web sites). Also, local movement offices may be able to help you find a congenial synagogue:

Chabad Lubavitch West Coast Headquarters (310) 208-7511;

Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (323) 933-7491;

Union of American HebrewCongregations (Reform) (323) 653-9962;

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (310) 229-9000;

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (818) 986-0907;

Key to denominations:

A denominational label means that a congregation is formally affiliated with a Jewish religious movement OR that it generally follows the philosophy and worship style of that movement.

(R) Reform

(C) Conservative

(O) Orthodox

(T) Traditional (Orthodox-style service without separation of men and women)

(S) Sephardic, including Persian and Middle Eastern congregations

(Rec.) Reconstructionist

(Ren.) Jewish Renewal

(I) Independent

Westside South

Adat Shalom (C) Rancho Park area: (310) 475-4985;

Temple Akiba (R) Culver City: (310) 398-5783;

Temple Beth Torah (C) Mar Vista: (310) 398-4536

Bais Chabad of Simcha Monica (O) Santa Monica: (310) 829-5620

B’nai Horin (Ren.) West Los Angeles: (310) 559-0587;

Chabad of Cheviot Hills (O): (310) 837-8083;

Chabad of Marina Del Rey (O): (310) 578-6000

The Chai Center (O): (310) 391-7995;

Temple Isaiah (R) Rancho Park: (310) 277-2772;

Kahal Joseph (S) Westwood area: (310) 474-0559

Kehillat Ma’arav (C) Santa Monica: (310) 829-0566;

Cong. Mishkon Tephilo (C) Venice: (310) 392-3029;

The Movable Minyan (I): (310) 285-3317

Nessah Educational & Cultural Center (S/O) Santa Monica: (310) 453-2218

Cong. N’vay Shalom (I): (323) 463-7728, (310) 535-1617

OhrHaTorah (I) Rancho Park area: (310) 278-9049, (818) 769-8223;

Pacific Jewish Center (O) Santa Monica: (310) 392-8749;

Sha’arei Am (R) Santa Monica; (310) 453-4276:

Sholem Community (I) Culver City: (818) 760-6625

Society for Humanistic Judaism (I): (213) 891-4303;

Westwood Kehilla (O); (310) 441-5288:

Young Israel of Santa Monica (O): (310) 314-3888

Young Israel of Venice (O): (310) 450-7541

Westside North

Beth Shir Shalom (R) Santa Monica: (310) 453-3361

Chabad of Bel Air (O): (310) 475-5311;

Chabad of Brentwood (O): (310) 826-4453

Chabad on Montana (O) Santa Monica: (310) 394-5699

Chabad of Malibu (O): (310) 456-6581

Chabad of North Beverly Hills (O): (310) 859-3948

Chabad of Pacific Palisades (O): (310) 454-7783

Temple Emanuel (R) Beverly Hills: (310) 274-6388;

Kehillat Israel (Rec.) Pacific Palisades: (310) 459-2328;

Leo Baeck Temple (R) Bel Air: (310) 476-2861;

Magen David of Beverly Hills (S/O): (310) 285-9957

Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue (Rec.): (310) 456-2178;

Sephardic Jewish Center/Persian Chabad (S/O) Beverly Hills: (310) 855-0555; (310) 275-6920

Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel (S/T) Westwood: (310) 475-7311

Sinai Temple (C) Westwood: (310) 474-1518

Stephen S. Wise Temple (R) Bel Air: (310) 476-8561

Synagogue for the Performing Arts (I): (310) 472-3500

University Synagogue (R) Brentwood: (310) 472-1255;

Westwood Village Synagogue (O): (310) 470-0080

Young Israel of North Beverly Hills (O): (310) 203-0170;

Hollywood/ L.A. East

Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park (C): (323) 255-5416

Chabad of Greater Los Feliz (O): (323) 660-5177

Chabad of Mt. Olympus (O): (323)650-1444

Chabad Russian Synagogue (O) West Hollywood: (323) 848-2999

Creative Arts Temple (I): (323) 656-6685

Hollywood Temple Beth El (C) and Iranian American Jewish Center (S) West Hollywood: (323) 656-3150

Temple Israel of Hollywood (R): (323) 876-8330;

Temple Knesset Israel of Hollywood (C): (323) 665-5171

Cong. Kol Ami (R) West Hollywood: (310) 248-6320;

Shir Hadash (R) Mid-Wilshire: (310) 456-5323

Wilshire Boulevard Temple (R) Mid-Wilshire; (213) 388-2401


Aaron David Cong. (O): (323) 933-1411

Ahavas Yisroel Syn. (O): (323) 937-1247

Cong. Bais Naftoli (O): (323) 931-2476

Cong. Bais Yehuda (O): (323) 936-7568

Cong. Bet Elazar (O): (323) 857-0577

Bet Midrash (O): (323) 939-0298

Cong. Beth Israel (T): (323) 651-4022

Chabad of Hancock Park (O): (323) 954-8381

Chabad Mid-City Center (O): (323) 655-9282

Etz Jacob Cong. (O): (323) 938-2619

Jewish Learning Exchange (O): (323) 857-0923;

Kehilas Yaakov (O): (323) 935-8572

Midrash Od Yosef Hai (S/O): (323) 653-5163

Cong. Ner Israel (O): (323) 933-3405

Cong. Ohel David (O): (323) 651-3594

Cong. Ohev Shalom (O): (323) 653-7190

Cong. Shaarei Tefila (O): (323) 938-7147

Temple Shalom for the Arts (I): (310) 858-1100

Tifereth Zvi (O): (323) 931-3252

Torah Ohr (S): (323) 939-6763;

Cong. Torah V’Chesed (O): (323) 653-5083

Yismach Moshe Cong. (O): (323) 939-2681

Young Israel of Hancock Park (O): (323) 931-4030

Young Israel of Los Angeles (O): (323) 655-0300


Aish Los Angeles (O): (310) 278-8672;

Anshe Emes Synagogue (O): (310) 275-5640;

Temple Beth Am (C): (310) 652-7353;

Cong. Beth Chayim Chadashim (R): (323) 931-7023;

Beth Jacob Cong. (O): (310) 278-1911;

Temple Beth Zion (C): (323) 933-9136;

B’nai David-Judea Cong. (O): (310) 276-9269;

Congregation Bais Bezalel (O): (310)282-0444

Chabad Israeli Center (O): (310) 271-6193

Kehillat Hashalom (O): (310) 652-9014;

Cong. Knesseth Israel of Beverlywood (T): (310) 839-4962

Midrasho Shel Shem (O): (323) 935-6081

Cong. Mogen David (T): (310) 556-5609

Ohel Moshe Cong. (S): (310) 652-1533

Torat Hayim Synagogue (S/O): (310) 652-8349

Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle (I): (310) 552-2007;

Yeshiva of Los Angeles Beis Midrash (O): (310) 553-4478 ext. 296

Young Israel of Beverly Hills (O): (310) 275-3020

Young Israel of Century City (O): (310) 273-6954;

San Fernando Valley West

Temple Ahavat Shalom (R) Northridge: (818) 360-2258;

Temple Aliyah (C) Woodland Hills: (818) 346-3545;

The Ami Havurah (C) Woodland Hills: (818) 884-6042

Beit Hamidrash of Woodland Hills (O): (818) 712-0365

Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf (R) Tarzana: (818) 363-5580

Temple Beth Torah (R) Granada Hills: (818) 831-0835;

B’nai Ami Syn. (C) Chatsworth: (818) 700-0492;

Chabad of Encino (O): (818) 784-9986

Chabad of Northridge (O): (818) 368-3937

Chabad of Tarzana (O): (818) 758-1818

Eretz Cultural Center (S/T) Reseda: (818) 342-9303

Temple Judea (R) Tarzana: (818) 758-3800;

Kol Tikvah (R) Woodland Hills: (818) 348-0670

Makom Ohr Shalom (Ren.) Woodland Hills: (310) 479-0559;

Temple Ner Maarav (C) Encino: (818) 345-7833

Temple Ramat Zion (C) Northridge: (818) 360-1881;

Sephardic Cohen Syn. (O) Tarzana: (818) 705-4557

Shomrei Torah Syn. (C) West Hills: (818) 346-0811;

Valley Beth Shalom (C) Encino: (818) 788-6000;

Valley Outreach Syn. (R): (818) 348-4867

Young Israel of Northridge (O): (818) 368-2221

San Fernando Valley East

Adat Ari El (C) North Hollywood: (818) 766-9426;

Adat Yeshurun Cong. (O) North Hollywood: (818) 766-4682

Bais Medresh Ohr Simcha (O) North Hollywood: (818) 760-2189

Beis Midrash Toras Hashem (O) Valley Village: (818) 980-6934

Bet Midrash Mishkan Israel (S) Sherman Oaks: (818) 901-1598

Temple Beth Emet (R) Burbank: (818) 843-4787

Temple Beth Hillel (R) Valley Village: (818) 763-9148

Cong. Beth Meier (T) Studio City: (818) 769-0515

Cong. Beth Ohr (I) Studio City: (818) 773-3663

Temple B’nai Hayim (C) Sherman Oaks: (818) 788-4664

Burbank Temple Emanu El (C): (818) 845-1734;

Chabad of Glendale (O): (818) 240-2750

Chabad of North Hollywood (O): (818) 989-9539

Chabad of Sherman Oaks (O): (818) 789-0850

Em Habanim Cong. (S/O) North Hollywood: (818) 762-7779

Shaarey Zedek Cong. (O) North Hollywood: (818) 763-0560

Temple Sinai of Glendale (R): (818) 246-8101

Valley Beth Israel (C) Sun Valley: (818) 782-2281

Valley Mishkan Israel Cong. (O) North Hollywood: (818) 769-8043

Yad Avraham (O) North Hollywood: (818) 766-6736

Conejo Valley/Santa Clarita

Temple Adat Elohim (R) Thousand Oaks: (805) 497-7101;

Temple Beth Ami (R) Santa Clarita: (661) 255-6410

Temple Beth Haverim (C) Agoura Hills: (818) 991-7111;

Beth Knesset Bamidbar (R) Lancaster: (661) 942-4415;

Cong. Beth Shalom (C) Santa Clarita: (661) 254-2411

Cong. B’nai Emet (R) Simi Valley: (805) 581-3723;

Chabad of Agoura Hills/Chabad of Conejo/Chabad of Oak Park (O): (818) 991-0991;

Chabad of Santa Clarita Valley (O): (661) 254-3434

Chabad of Simi Valley (O): (805) 577-0573

Temple Etz Chaim (C) Thousand Oaks: (805) 497-6891;

Cong. Or Ami (R) Agoura Hills: (818) 880-6818;

South Bay

Temple Beth El (R) San Pedro: (310) 833-2467;

B’nai Tikvah Cong. (C) Westchester: (310) 645-6262;

Chabad of the Beach Cities (O) Redondo Beach: (310) 372-6879;

Chabad of Palos Verdes (O): (310) 544-5544;

Chabad of the South Bay (O) Lomita: (310) 326-8234

Temple Menorah (R) Redondo Beach/Torrance: (310) 316-8444

Cong. Ner Tamid of the South Bay (C) Rancho Palos Verdes: (310) 377-6986

Temple Rodeph Shalom (R) El Segundo: (310) 390-3242;

Southwest Temple Beth Torah (C) Gardena: (310) 327-8734

Cong. Tifereth Jacob (C) Manhattan Beach: (310) 546-3667