Love in the time of Elul


I confess there’s something that’s always bothered me about this time of year, when we put such a big emphasis on reflecting on our mistakes. Why only now? Isn’t this something we should be doing all year? As a community, we certainly do plenty of it, through the very act of constantly challenging one another.

We don’t wait for the month of Elul to expose our communal failures. We do it every day on Facebook, on blogs, in our community papers, in letters to the editors, at our Shabbat tables, at conferences and anywhere else we come into contact with Jews with whom we disagree.

The essence of this time of year, however, is very personal, and it calls for repentance — the notion that after we identify our mistakes of the past year, we must repent to God and to those we have hurt.

But if we have to repent, why wait a whole year? 

Wouldn’t it be better to ask for forgiveness promptly, while the mistakes are still fresh in everyone’s mind and before they have a chance to fester?

This is why the year-end ritual is often not taken seriously, with many people asking for mechilla (forgiveness) just to be safe, without being exactly sure how they messed up.

I understand the religious timing. The 40 days that comprise the month of Elul and the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur symbolize the 40 days some 3,300 years ago at Sinai when our ancestors wondered if God would ever forgive them for their fling with the Golden Calf.

When Moses came down from the mountain on the day that is now Yom Kippur to announce that God had indeed forgiven the Jews and given them a second chance (and a second set of tablets), it gave these 40 days a halo of Divine goodwill.

“During the month of Elul, G-d is more accessible, so to speak,” Rabbi Yossi Marcus writes on AskMoses.com. “During the rest of the year He is like a king sitting in his palace, receiving guests by appointment only. … Not so during Elul. Then the King is ‘out in the field.’ He’s in a good mood and anyone can come and talk to him. The protocol of the palace is discarded.

“Elul is the time when we are given a leg up, a Divine boost, in our spiritual careers.”

I get that, but it still bothers me. First, God can’t forgive us for our sins against other people, and those people are always available if we want to seek forgiveness. And two, as far as our sins against God, shouldn’t an all-powerful Creator always be in the field to listen to our pleas and help our “spiritual careers”?

Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that we took more of a yearlong approach to the spiritual staples of Elul and the High Holy Days. What, then, could we focus on at this time of year? What spiritual staple could we add? 

I would vote for love.

Yes, love.

It’s a word Christians use religiously, but Jews evidently find too shmaltzy and nebulous.

But here’s the point: Until we remind ourselves of what and why and whom we love, we can’t truly repent and, ultimately, renew ourselves, which is the highest purpose of the High Holy Days. Love elevates and deepens the whole process.

The more we love, the better we repent, the deeper we renew.

We can deepen our love in countless areas. There is our love for the gifts God has given us; our love for the world He has created, with all its imperfections; our love for our people and our story, with all our imperfections; our love for our family, our Torah, our friends, our community, our soul mates, and the needy stranger; our love for repairing the world.

Just as we delve into Torah study, we can delve into love. We can study what our Sages, holy books and commentators say about love. We can contemplate the unique power of this commandment and why it’s a lot more complicated than just saying or thinking, “I love you.” 

By developing a deeper spiritual and intellectual attachment to love, we may also find it easier to ask for forgiveness as well as to forgive.

Of course, the more we refine and practice love, the less we’ll hurt people and have to ask for forgiveness in the first place. 

Elul itself suggests love. In Hebrew, the word is also an acronym for “I am my Beloved and my Beloved is mine” (“Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”), the famous quote from Song of Songs 6:3, where the Beloved is God and the “I” is the Jewish people. What better way to honor the month of Elul than through a reaffirmation of our love for all God has given us, including love itself?

Jews are very good at the tough stuff — the criticism, the tough love, the arguing, even the diligent davening. Maybe what we need now, in preparation for the hard work of repentance, is to immerse ourselves in the even harder work of internalizing that elusive and transcendent commandment we call love.

How could God not love that? 


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

High Holy Day services guide: Alternative services


For other services, visit our ” target=”_blank” title=”Family”>Family, ” target=”_blank” title=”Kever Avot”>Kever Avot, ” target=”_blank” title=”Tashlich”>Tashlich calendars.

” target=”_blank” title=”metivta.org”>metivta.org.

COMMUNITY HIGH HOLY DAYS
Sun. 7:30 p.m. Free. Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-7420. ” target=”_blank” title=”estherleon.com”>estherleon.com.

DAYS OF AWESOME
Jewlicious’ nontraditional, interactive High Holiday experience. For young professionals (20s and 30s). Mon. 9:30 a.m. Free (reservations recommended). Hillel Harkam Academy, 9120 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 277-5544. ” target=”_blank” title=”sholem.org”>sholem.org.

THE WALKING STICK
The scenic foothills of Simi Peak just outside of Thousand Oaks provide the backdrop, and author and singer-songwriter Rabbi Miriam Maron and author Rabbi Gershon Winkler incorporate ancient wisdom, spirited chant, entrancing movement, joyful celebration, and shamanic ceremony (completely Jewish-based). Childcare available. Mon. 1 p.m. Donation requested: $50 (RSVP required). Private home, 2000 Upper Ranch Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 795-2996. ” target=”_blank” title=”nashuva.com”>nashuva.com

METIVTA
Chant and meditation service. Tue. 10 a.m. $50 (includes today’s service only). Olympic Collection, 11301 Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 654-9293. TUE SEPT 25 — KOL NIDRE

DAYS OF AWESOME
Jewlicious’ nontraditional, interactive High Holiday experience. For young professionals (20s and 30s). Tue. 6 p.m. Free (reservations recommended). Hillel Harkam Academy, 9120 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 277-5544.” target=”_blank” title=”sholem.org”>sholem.org.

THE WALKING STICK
The scenic foothills of Simi Peak just outside of Thousand Oaks provide the backdrop, and author and singer-songwriter Rabbi Miriam Maron and author Rabbi Gershon Winkler incorporate ancient wisdom, spirited chant, entrancing movement, joyful celebration and shamanic ceremony (completely Jewish-based). Childcare available. Tue. 7 p.m. Donation requested: $50, (Kol Nidre only). $100 (Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur). RSVP required. Private home, 2000 Upper Ranch Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 795-2996. ” target=”_blank” title=”estherleon.com”>estherleon.com.


WED SEPT 26 — YOM KIPPUR

COMMUNITY HIGH HOLY DAYS
Wed. 9:30 a.m.  Free. Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-7420. “>jconnectla.com.

THE WALKING STICK
The scenic foothills of Simi Peak just outside of Thousand Oaks provide the backdrop, and author and singer-songwriter Rabbi Miriam Maron and author Rabbi Gershon Winkler incorporate ancient wisdom, spirited chant, entrancing movement, joyful celebration and shamanic ceremony (completely Jewish-based). Childcare available. Wed. 1 p.m.-sundown. Donation requested: $75 (Yom Kippur only). $100 (Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur). RSVP required. Private home, 2000 Upper Ranch Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 795-2996. calendar@jewishjournal.com.

High Holy Day services guide: College services


For other services, visit our ” target=”_blank” title=”Family”>Family, ” target=”_blank” title=”Kever Avot”>Kever Avot, ” target=”_blank” title=”Tashlich”>Tashlich calendars.

” target=”_blank” title=”uschillel.org”>uschillel.org.

CHABAD HOUSE AT CSUN
All Valley-based college students welcome. Sun. Candle-lighting time (6:39 p.m.). Free (students, includes meal). Chabad House at CSUN, 17833 Prairie St., Northridge. (818) 885-5770. ” target=”_blank” title=”uclahillel.org”>uclahillel.org.

UNIVERSITY SYNAGOGUE
College/grad students granted free admission to all-ages service. Must show valid school ID. Sun. 7:30 p.m. Free (advance registration required). University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255.  ” target=”_blank” title=”tioh.org”>tioh.org.


MON SEPT 17 — ROSH HASHANAH (FIRST DAY)

HILLEL AT UCLA
Students must show university ID. Mon. Traditional egalitarian: 9 a.m., Orthodox: 9:15 a.m., 6:40 p.m.; Reform: 9:30 a.m. Free (UCLA students, RSVP required). Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081, ext. 213. ” target=”_blank” title=”uschillel.org”>uschillel.org.

CHABAD HOUSE AT CSUN
All Valley-based college students welcome. Mon. 10 a.m. Free (students, includes meal). Chabad House at CSUN, 17833 Prairie St., Northridge. (818) 885-5770. ” target=”_blank” title=”unisyn.org”>unisyn.org.

TEMPLE ISRAEL OF HOLLYWOOD
Students/Birthright Israel alumni granted free admission to all-ages service. Student ID/dates of Birthright trip and name of trip provider required. Mon. 10:15 a.m. (Sanctuary service, Minyan service). Free (advance registration required). Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. ” target=”_blank” title=”uclahillel.org”>uclahillel.org.

CHABAD HOUSE AT CSUN
All Valley-based college students welcome. Tue. 10 a.m. Free (students, includes meal). Chabad House at CSUN, 17833 Prairie St., Northridge. (818) 885-5770. ” target=”_blank” title=”uschillel.org”>uschillel.org.


TUE SEPT 25 — KOL NIDRE

HILLEL AT UCLA
Students must show university ID. Tue. Traditional egalitarian: 6:15 p.m.; Orthodox, Reform: 6:30 p.m. Free (UCLA students, RSVP required). Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081, ext. 213. ” target=”_blank” title=”chabadcsun.com”>chabadcsun.com.

USC HILLEL
Hillel invites USC students to celebrate the High Holy Days. Tue. 6:45 p.m. $18 (single-service ticket), $72 (all-services ticket). USC Hillel, 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135. ” target=”_blank” title=”unisyn.org”>unisyn.org.

TEMPLE ISRAEL OF HOLLYWOOD
Students/Birthright Israel alumni granted free admission to all-ages service. Student ID/dates of Birthright trip and name of trip provider required. Tue. 8 p.m. Free (advance registration required). Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330.” target=”_blank” title=”uclahillel.org”>uclahillel.org.

USC HILLEL
Hillel invites USC students to celebrate the High Holy Days. Wed. 9:30 a.m. (yizkor at 12:30 p.m. $18 (single-service ticket), $72 (all-services ticket). USC Hillel, 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135. ” target=”_blank” title=”chabadcsun.com”>chabadcsun.com.

UNIVERSITY SYNAGOGUE
College/grad students granted free admission to all-ages service. Must show valid school ID. Wed. 10 a.m. (morning service), 3:30 p.m/ (afternoon, memorial and concluding services). University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. ” target=”_blank” title=”tioh.org”>tioh.org.

Are we missing a service? E-mail us at calendar@jewishjournal.com.

High Holy Day services guide: Family services


For other services, visit our ” target=”_blank” title=”College”>College, ” target=”_blank” title=”Kever Avot”>Kever Avot, ” target=”_blank” title=”Tashlich”>Tashlich calendars.

” target=”_blank” title=”zimmermuseum.org”>zimmermuseum.org

TEMPLE AHAVAT SHALOM
Geared toward families with young children (8 and under), this hour-long service offers opportunities for children and adults alike to join in both traditional and contemporary song and prayer while sharing in stories and special Torah readings reflecting the mood of the season. Sun. 6-7 p.m. Free. Temple Ahavat Shalom, Sanctuary, 18200 Rinaldi Place, Northridge. RSVP to (818) 360-2258. ” target=”_blank” title=”tasnorthridge.org”>tasnorthridge.org.

TEMPLE ISRAEL OF HOLLYWOOD
Toddlers through second-graders. Mon. 8:30 a.m. Free (no tickets required). Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. ” target=”_blank” title=”adatariel.org”>adatariel.org.

IKAR
The progressive egalitarian community holds family services for parents and children (2-year-olds to first-graders). Mon. 9-9:45 a.m. Free (parent must show ID). Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ” target=”_blank” title=”bcc-la.org”>bcc-la.org.

SHOMREI TORAH SYNAGOGUE
For families – especially those with third- to seventh-graders — this service will feature a full band, interactive stories, high-energy music and inclusive participation. Led by Rabbi Erez Sherman. Babysitting available for children 2 to 5. Mon. 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Free. Pomelo Elementary School, 7633 March Ave., West Hills. (818) 346-0811. ” target=”_blank” title=”sholem.org”>sholem.org.

TEMPLE EMANUEL
Tot service (toddlers and pre-schoolers). Mon. 11-11:30 a.m. Free. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 274-6388. ” target=”_blank” title=”bethshirshalom.org”>bethshirshalom.org.

UNIVERSITY SYNAGOGUE
For younger children. Mon. 1:30 p.m. Free (tickets and registration required). University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. ” target=”_blank” title=”leobaecktemple.org”>leobaecktemple.org.

TEMPLE KOL TIKVAH
Mon. 2 p.m. Free. Temple Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. ” target=”_blank” title=”adatelohim.org”>adatelohim.org.

TEMPLE JUDEA
Mon. 3:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. Free. Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800. “>wisela.org.


TUE SEPT 18 — ROSH HASHANAH (SECOND DAY)

IKAR
The progressive egalitarian community holds family services for parents and children (2-year-olds to first-graders). Parents are encouraged to attend with their children. Tue. 9-9:45 a.m. Free (parent must show ID). Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. TUE SEPT 25 — KOL NIDRE

TEMPLE AHAVAT SHALOM
Geared toward families with young children (8-and-under), this hour-long service offers opportunities for children and adults alike to join in both traditional and contemporary song and prayer while sharing in stories and special Torah readings reflective of the mood of the season. Tue. 6-7 p.m. Free. Temple Ahavat Shalom, Sanctuary, 18200 Rinaldi Place, Northridge. (818) 360-2258. ” target=”_blank” title=”tasnorthridge.org”>tasnorthridge.org.

TEMPLE ISRAEL OF HOLLYWOOD
Toddlers through second-graders. Wed. 8:30 a.m. Free (no tickets required). Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. ” target=”_blank” title=”adatariel.org”>adatariel.org.

IKAR
The progressive egalitarian community holds family services for parents and children (2-year-olds to first-graders). Parents are encouraged to attend with their children. Wed. 9-9:45 a.m. Free (parent must show ID). Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ” target=”_blank” title=”stsonline.org”>stsonline.org.

BETH CHAYIM CHADASHIM
BCC education director Leah Zimmerman leads this service for parents and their kids (ages 1-12). Wed. 11 a.m. Free. Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023. ” target=”_blank” title=”tebh.org”>tebh.org.

UNIVERSITY SYNAGOGUE
For younger children. Wed. 1:30 p.m. Free (tickets and registration required). University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. ” target=”_blank” title=”bethshirshalom.org”>bethshirshalom.org.

TEMPLE KOL TIKVAH
Wed. 2 p.m., 4 p.m. (afternoon service), 5:15 p.m. (Yizkor/Neilah). Free. Temple Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. ” target=”_blank” title=”leobaecktemple.org”>leobaecktemple.org.

TEMPLE ADAT ELOHIM
For parents who want to attend High Holy Days services with their young children (preschoolers to second-graders; older siblings permitted), this 30-minute service is for you. Wed. 3-3:30 p.m. Free. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101. ” target=”_blank” title=”templejudea.com”>templejudea.com.

STEPHEN S. WISE TEMPLE
Join Stephen S. Wise for this service designed for children (birth to age 6) and their families. Stephen S. Wise Temple Clergy will lead this musical and age-appropriate service, so that families can celebrate Yom Kippur together. Wed. 4 p.m. Free (no tickets required). Skirball Cultural Center, Magnin Auditorium, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 889-2383. “>wisela.org.

Are we missing a service? E-mail us at calendar@jewishjournal.com.

Repenting with our eyes


Is the mind more powerful than the heart? This question was hovering in the air during an insightful Torah class last week given by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, spiritual leader of B’nai David-Judea Congregation. Kanefsky presented two distinct views of the concept of teshuvah, which is commonly referred to as “repentance” but means, more precisely, “to return.”

He talked about the teshuvah of the mind and the teshuvah of the heart.

To explain the teshuvah of the mind, Kanefsky quoted from Maimonides (the Rambam) and his Laws of Teshuvah. The premise is that we all start with a blank slate and with an equal power to use our God-given free will: “If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his.”

Of course, there are huge impediments to achieving the ideal moral state of mind, not least our physical drives and emotional vulnerabilities, which the Rambam calls “the dark and turbid matter that is ours.”

How does one hope to conquer these impediments? By transcending the emotional idea of belief and entering the state of constant knowingness of God and our God-given power of free will.

Kanefsky quoted Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s commentary on the Rambam: “I would say that ‘to know’ (lei’da) means that our conviction of the existence of God should become a constant and continuous awareness of God, a level of awareness never marred by inattention; ‘to believe’ (le’ha’amin), on the other hand, implies no prohibition on inattentiveness. ‘I believe’ — but it may happen that I become distracted at times from the thing in which I believe.”

Similarly, Soloveitchik adds that the assumption of free choice “cannot rely on belief by itself; it also depends on knowledge, on a feeling of being wholly charged by the tension present in this God-given factor of free choice.”

It follows that correcting our transgressions should also be mindful — hence the Rambam’s call for a “verbal confession.” Again, we are using our free choice to “confess before God” and “cleanse our hands” of our transgression.

The core idea, then, behind this approach is to use the power of our minds and our free will to reach higher levels of goodness and Godliness.

But here’s the catch: If our free will is constantly tainted by our physical and emotional impediments, how “free” are we? And, consequently, how realistic is it to put so much faith in our minds?

This is where Kanefsky introduced the teshuvah of the heart, through the teachings of the mystic Rabbi A.I. Kook. This view holds that we are all born basically good — that, as Rav Kook writes, “It is impossible for a person to fundamentally change his soul’s form and good nature.”

Because “it is a requisite of human nature to pursue the righteous path,” then, whenever a person sins, “if he has not suffered a total spiritual degeneration, his sensitivity will cause him disquiet, and he will suffer pain. He will become zealous to repent, to redress his wrongdoing, until he can feel that his sin has been purged away.”

In essence, Rav Kook interprets teshuvah as “returning” to our innate goodness — to our all-knowing souls that are always connected to God.

So, while the Rambam talks about using our minds to bond with God, Rav Kook talks about using our hearts to uncover the God that is already in us. Both approaches, while complicated and multilayered, are personally empowering.

Therefore, you won’t be surprised to hear that in the great Jewish tradition of seeking balance, it’s smart to incorporate both ideas. As Kanefsky explained, we need to be aware of the power of our minds to control our actions through our God-given free will, but we must also allow our hearts to help us connect to our better and more soulful selves.

If I may complicate your life a little further, I’d like to propose a third teshuvah, this one inspired by the personal example of my friend Rabbi Kanefsky himself: the teshuvah of the eyes.

In this teshuvah, we return not just to ourselves and to God, but to others.

As we open our minds to know God better, we open our eyes to see His children better. As we open our hearts to return to our better selves, we open our eyes to see the “better self” in others.

As we return to our natural state of Godliness, we return to our childhood state of innocence — when our eyes were always open to discovering new things.

And now, during this period of repentance, as we reflect on our transgressions, we can also reflect on the opportunities we have missed over the past year to discover new things — such as new ideas that might expand our thinking, or ancient Jewish traditions that might enrich our lives.

Maybe we can all open our eyes over the coming year to the fascinating stories of Jews in our community whom we’d never think to meet or hang out with. At the very least, let us open our eyes to recognize and value their presence under God’s tent.

As we do the difficult work during these High Holy Days of returning to our own goodness, let us not forget the even more difficult work of seeing the goodness in others.

When You Can’t Go Home Again


Ah, the High Holidays. Time to gather, celebrate, eat, fast, repent and eat some more. But before you can get to any of that, there’s another, perhaps less-ancient tradition that takes place a few weeks prior. It’s the High Holiday scramble, and anyone without deeply planted roots knows how the dance goes. Jewish New Year works much like Dec. 31: You don’t want to be alone; there’s pressure to have someplace to go; and for transplants, singles and others, the options are less obvious than a meal with the family and services at the synagogue where you grew up. A little originality is called for, and the industrious don’t miss a beat.

Witness the “orphan party.” The wandering Jew’s answer to family dinner involves the gathering of “orphans,” a.k.a., friends, brothers, sisters, cousins and anyone else who doesn’t have anywhere to go for the holiday.

“As a single person, I rally all my friends together,” longtime New York transplant Amy Levy said. “I want to make sure my friends have someplace to go…. For years I’ve had people to my home. I make fantastic pot roast, everybody brings something. I’ve created a new tradition with my friends. We celebrate the holidays together.”

Since taking on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can be a big commitment, this year, when the repenting is done, “I’ll go to my friend, Joana’s Aunt Sandy’s,” Levy said. “My boyfriend and I are going there for break the fast.”

Services, too, can be a stress-inducing dilemma. At around $300 a head, standard synagogue membership can become a much less appealing consideration for those without families close by, and many synagogues don’t offer discounts for adults older than 25.

Some synagogues and Jewish organizations, like Sinai Temple (www.sinaitemple.org) and Aish (www.aish.com), offer reduced fees for those in their 20s and early 30s, and Jewish Singles Meet! (whose reservation line is (818) 780-4809) welcomes singles in their 30s and 40s to their services. A few other synagogues, like Temple Beth Zion-Sinai in Lakewood (www.tbzs.org), charge for tickets but will not turn people away because of an inability to pay. And then there’s always Chabad (www.chabad.com), the Chai Center (www.chaicenter.org) and the Laugh Factory (323) 656-1336), that offer completely free services and meals for the masses.

“We joined a temple because they had youth fees, so if you were under 34 it was like $100 for the year, and that got you tickets to the High Holidays,” said Karen Gilman, who moved to Los Angeles with her sister nearly five years ago. “But, I wasn’t wowed by their services, and when I turned 34 they were going to up my fees a lot. So I didn’t go to services last year.”

This year, Gilman will spend the holidays with her parents in New York. Financially, however, that’s not always an option. She and her sister have hosted Passover orphan parties for the last few years, with their penchant for hosting so acclaimed, that one friend nicknamed her sister the Pesach Queen.

Levy, on the other hand, will attend services at various synagogues around Los Angeles. She has said she likes to “explore the opportunities available to me on an a la carte basis.”

And while she admitted that the researching of prices, and the prices of services themselves, can seem overwhelming, she was equally quick to emphasize the value of it, at least to her.

“I really enjoy the holidays and as a person not married and without children, I don’t have a temple membership, but I’ve never missed a year of going to temple on the holidays,” Levy said. — Keren Engelberg,, Contributing Writer

Prisons Pray for Surge in Chaplains


Those who might have the greatest need to repent this High Holiday season may not be able to.

A severe shortage in Jewish chaplains has led to a situation where the spiritual needs of some prisoners in California’s state and federal correctional institutions are not being met.

"When it comes to holidays and services, there’s a very real concern that we’re not doing a very effective and adequate job at serving in institutionalized settings," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California (BOR). "There are many institutionalized Jews that do not have the benefits of a rabbi."

Historically, prisons have found it increasingly difficult to attract chaplains to fill available positions. Current California budget cuts have most recently eliminated many vacant prison chaplain positions. The result is an inadequate number of Jewish chaplains in relation to a rising Jewish prison population.

According to BOR, the governing board that certifies all Jewish chaplains serving in the California Department of Corrections (CDC), Jews make up approximately .5 percent to 1 percent of the total inmate population. While it is difficult to get an exact count due to inmate privacy laws, the BOR formula reveals that there are between 805 and 1,610 Jews in California state prisons — the third- largest Jewish prisoner population in the country. Although comparably smaller, the fastest-growing Jewish inmate population is found in the federal system. Following the formula, there are between 72 and 144 Jews in federal prisons in California. However, an estimate by the Bureau of Prisons is higher, arriving at approximately 228 Jews in the federal system.

While there are more Jewish prisoners than ever, there are fewer chaplains. Five years ago, there were 12 full-time, professional civil service chaplains employed by the CDC, and now there are only eight. Also, the California federal prisons and the California Youth Authority has no Jewish chaplains in their employ, and nearly a third of the part- and full-time Jewish chaplain positions in the CDC are vacant.

The shortage of chaplains is neither a new — nor a Jewish — problem. Poor work conditions, long hours, low pay and inaccessibility, have always made it difficult for prisons to attract and maintain chaplains. Recently, however, the problem has grown because of chaplains’ reduced authority: they used to report directly to the warden, but now are required to report to a community resource manager (CRM) whose purpose is to oversee religious programming. Many see this as a demotion.

"It’s more difficult to gain access to the administration, and as a result it makes it difficult to perform our tasks efficiently," said Lon Moscowitz, the Jewish chaplain at California Men’s Colony where there are 50-70 Jewish prisoners at any one time. "So it’s kind of grueling work."

California’s recent budget crisis has added additional strain to an already desperate situation. In order to reduce spending, most prisons have stopped hiring full-time chaplains. Employee salaries have been cut, benefits reduced and hiring freezes and eliminated positions have become routine. On June 30, the California Department of Finance ruled that all unfilled state agency positions would be eliminated: 13 multidenominational chaplain positions in California state prisons were lost and 31 out of 33 CRM positions will be done by October.

Although the mass eliminations have only resulted in a loss of three fractional Jewish positions, it spurred great concern among Jewish prison chaplains regarding their present job security and the impact further cuts would have on Jewish inmates.

"The consequence is that serious programs of rehabilitation aren’t going to be there for the inmates," Moscowitz said. "If there are no chaplains to facilitate and supervise programs then the inmates can’t learn and grow Jewishly or spiritually, and if that’s the case they’ll be walking out of prison at their parole no better than when they came in and most likely worse."

Many chaplains have already seen the effects of the shortage. Taking advantage of limited chaplain support, proselytizing missionaries are stepping forward to fill a spiritual void. Evangelists enter the prisons as volunteers and encourage conversion of Jewish inmates. (The BOR does not allow Jewish chaplains to convert inmates during incarceration.) There are currently four states that have replaced all civil service chaplains with volunteer missionaries in order to reduce spending.

Without a visible Jewish presence in prison, Jewish prisoners have become increasingly vulnerable, putting many Jewish prisoners in the way of rampant anti-Semitism. Nazi gangs and white supremacists are so common that the majority of Jewish prisoners never "come out" as Jews.

Stuart Thompson, a former prisoner, told The Journal that he considers himself lucky that he did not have a "Jewish name."

"I could have been badly hurt," Thompson said, adding that his brother, who is currently incarcerated is much more danger because of his obvious Jewish looks. "My brother has been threatened that because he is a Jew ‘he better watch out.’ They don’t have a rabbi available and I think that’s horrible."

This High Holiday season, in an effort to keep Jewish prisoners from falling through the cracks, some in the Jewish community have picked up the slack. During the High Holidays, many volunteers provide religious materials, visit inmates and their families in remote prisons, and lead additional services.

Without the help of such organizations, many Jewish prisoners are abandoned by the prison system and often rejected by their families and the greater Jewish community.

"We must fulfill the community’s responsibility to our incarcerated brethren and their families," said Gary Friedman, Pacific Southwest president of Jewish Prisoners International. "All Israel is responsible for each other. It doesn’t say ‘just some of us.’"

Inmate advocacy and Jewish chaplain organizations such as Jewish Prisoners International, Alef and local Chabad groups, send Jewish chaplains into prisons as volunteers, conducting religious services and lobbying for the religious rights of Jewish prisoners. The Jewish Committee for Personal Service sends volunteer social workers into the prisons and Beit T’Shuvah Los Angeles, a residential, therapeutic community, offers alternative sentencing for Jewish prisoners recovering from alcoholism and substance abuse, and residency when inmates are released from prison.

The BOR plays a major part in serving Jewish prisoners. Last year, its Planning and Allocations Department approved $10,000 in order to provide prisoners with Tanachs. The move was made in response to a study funded by the Jewish Community Foundation that evaluated and identified the needs of Jews in prisons and hospitals. Until the approval, only free Christian Bibles and free Korans were available to prisoners. This Rosh Hashanah, the study brought about a donation of personalized Tanach plates and Jewish 12-step books for identified Jewish prisoners.

Recently, the BOR took the budget crisis in its own hands and amended state regulations to allow nonordained rabbis to serve as chaplains. The amendment, which took more than two years for six state agencies to sign off on, was modeled after a similar Catholic action, which trained deacons and nuns when priests were in short supply. While the move has come under fire by some Jewish chaplains who believe that a lack of rabbinical school will make for unqualified Jewish chaplains, the BOR insists that in order to qualify for chaplaincy, candidates must be knowledgeable Jewishly and qualified to provide guidance to prisoners.

Diamond said that the role of BOR Jewish chaplains is not to judge prisoners, but to listen, provide guidance and education.

The BOR also employs several Jewish chaplains in L.A. County prisons and oversees the Community Services Commission, which sends volunteer chaplains into prisons.

"We take great pride in serving people that are marginalized in the Jewish community," Diamond said. "And you’d be hard-pressed to find a group that is more marginalized than Jewish prisoners."

Students Seek Forgiveness, Too


Adults aren’t the only ones planning to ask God for forgiveness during the High Holidays. As the Day of Atonement approaches, youngsters around Los Angeles are already contemplating the mistakes they’ve made over the past year. Here is what eight young Angelenos plan to repent for during Yom Kippur.

Sophie Kay

Age: 12

7th Grade

Brentwood

I will repent for gossip. When one of your friends doesn’t like another one of your friends, they talk about the person. Of course, I try not to take part in it, but it’s hard.

Zack Hirst

Age: 12

8th Grade

Castaic

I think I’ll ask forgiveness for everything I’ve done bad this year, like not being honest with my parents.

Erin Blagman

Age: 11

6th Grade

Hancock Park

I’ll probably ask for forgiveness for not working to my full ability in school. Also I’ll try not to be so sarcastic all the time with my family. Mainly, it’s my timing with that one!

Spencer Anson

Age: 11

6th Grade

Los Angeles

My sister and I got into a couple of fights lately. I’m going to apologize for whenever I was mean to her.

Rebecca Shapiro

Age: 13

8th Grade

North Hollywood

I’ll atone for mistakes I made that hurt other people. I don’t mean to hurt them, but sometimes I do. I’ll also atone for the opportunities I had to do kindness and didn’t do it.

Staav Goldreich

Age: 14

9th Grade

Woodland Hills

I don’t know what I’ll atone for. I’ve been a good child this year. I’ve been mean to my sister, but she deserved that. How about I’m sorry that I ate so much chocolate?

Natasha Rosenfield

Age: 12

7th Grade

Granada Hills

Mostly, I’d like to ask forgiveness of some of my friends, because we fought and to my parents because we disagree a lot and get into fights sometimes. I’ll probably confront them all.

David Hermel

Age: 13

8th Grade

Sherman Oaks

When I think of teshuvah, which means "return," I think of how I can be a better person and return to my Jewish values by doing mitzvot and chesed (acts of lovingkindness). At this time of the year especially, I ask my friends and family to forgive me for sins I may have committed against them.

The Blow by Blow on Shofarim


Yossi Mizrachi stood in front of a class of second-graders at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy with a dark, ridged, 4-foot-long buffalo horn in his hand.

"Can we use this for a shofar?" he asked the class, who started cooing in awe at the enormous horn.

"The buffalo is a kosher animal," Mizrachi said, before taking the horn and putting it over his shoulder so it looked like a shofar musket. "But did you ever see a rabbi carrying a shofar that looked like this to shul?"

Mizrachi was at Harkham Hillel with his colleague, Alti Burston, to teach the second-graders how to make shofars. The two men, both in their early 20s, have been traveling all over California for the past couple of weeks with a mobile shofar factory, stopping in different classrooms and synagogues to give people a chance to make their own shofars for Rosh Hashanah.

A shofar is a hollowed-out animal horn, that has a hole pierced through the cartilage end. When air is forced through the shofar, it acts as an instrument of sorts, emitting a plaintive wail. By controlling the amount of air going through the shofar, the wail can be manipulated to create different sounds.

Blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a mitzvah from the Torah, and, as Mizrachi told the class, the reason we blow it is because it acts as a spiritual "alarm clock," reminding us to wake up and to repent.

While most of the shofars being blown in synagogues are slick and shiny factory processed ram’s horns, the coarse prototypes produced in this makeshift factory (sponsored by Chabad Youth Programs) are just as kosher, and create a sound that is as sharp and clear.

In the classroom, Mizrachi and Burston use a display of pictures of different horned animals and two stuffed sheep busts on loan from the Museum of Natural History to tell the class which animals can and can’t be used to make a shofar. Animals like giraffes and deer are out because the protrusions on the top of their heads are not actually horns but ossicones (for giraffes) and antlers (deer). However, the kudu — an African animal with a long curly horn that Sephardic communities prefer to use as their shofar — the ram, the gemsbok and the ibex, all have the rounded horns that can be used as a shofar.

Despite its impressive size, the buffalo horn, it turns out, is not permissible to use as a shofar, because the buffalo is from the cow family. As Mizrachi explained to the class, we tend to steer clear of cow-related shofars because we don’t want to remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf on the day we are hoping to get into His good graces.

"The significance of the shofar being curved means that sometimes we take our will, and we don’t do only what we want to do, but we do what Hashem wants us to do," Mizrachi said. "We bend our will to do what Hashem wants."

To make the shofar, Mizrachi took a ram’s horn, which unlike the light yellow shofars seen in synagogues, was a blackish gray, and called for a strong volunteer from the class. A student named Amanda stood up to the challenge, and with Mizrachi assisting her, used a pair of pliers to extract the bone inside the wide end of the horn. The class gave her a round of applause.

Mizrachi called for more volunteers who took turns sanding down the horn with sand paper. Mizrachi then took a piece of plastic and stuck it through the wide end of the horn to measure for cartilage, noting where the cartilage began. He handed the shofar to Burston, who used a little saw to cut through the cartilage.

Then the drilling began. Mizrachi dressed Avi, another student, in safety goggles and a helmet, and together they held the electric drill, using the cone bit to create the mouthpiece on the shofar. With a great flourish, Mizrachi blew through the hole, ostensibly to see if it had gone all the way through. A cloud of keratin (the substance ram’s horns/shofars are made of) dust filled the air and the class clapped wildly.

Apparently, the hole had gone all the way through. Burston then used a mechanical sander to smooth out the rough edges, and the shofar was sprayed with varnish and left to dry.

Burston then taught the class on how to blow a shofar. He held his middle finger and his index finger together, and used them to cover three quarters of his lips.

"People think that you have to blow, but you really have to go like this," said Mizrachi, before forcing the air through the opening in his lip. Without the shofar at his lips, it sounded something like a whoopee cushion. With the shofar, it sounded religiously melodic.

Sin


By the time you read this, it’s probably too late for me.

To repent, I mean.

You might be reading this on the day before Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement itself, and by then — despite all the rabbinic lore of last-minute deathbed confessions and Indiana Jones-style slide-under-the-fast-closing-door of Heaven’s pearly gates — I think that if you haven’t been thinking about your wrongs until the final hour, "Ne’ila" — the last prayer of Yom Kippur day, which literally means closing — then you don’t have a prayer to be saved.


How many shall leave this world
and how many shall be born into it?
Who shall live and who shall die?
Who shall live out the limit of his
days and who shall not?
Who shall perish by fire/water/
sword/beast/hunger/thirst/
earthquake/plague/strangling/stoning … etc.

If my attitude toward these holy days seems glib, it’s because I took these Yom Kippur prayers very seriously from a young age, and this is my only way to deflect that foreboding feeling that grips my chest like a shrunken glove, sometime mid-August, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, a month before Rosh Hashana.

Some people look forward to the High Holidays, with its delectable apples and honey, the family ingathering and even, they say, their time in synagogue, which they say is "cleansing." Imagine that.

I, on the other hand, raised on the fire-and-brimstone imagery of angry angels, an unforgiving God and a never-ending checklist of sins listed in the Machzor prayer book, never overjoyed at the prospect of these holidays.

How could I?

There were too many things I did wrong over the year for me to enjoy the holiday — although what an 11-year-old religious girl could do wrong, in retrospect, seems laughable compared to 20 years later.

Greater men than I have thought about the concept of sin. Rabbis, theologians, philosophers, professors have dedicated tomes to it. But this is a subject that I have been schooled in all my life — one way or another, Orthodoxy, and the departure from it, is always about sin — and I have become an amateurish expert myself, a dilettante of sorts.

My first "sin": My first official fast, age 12. It is drizzling, a cool September Brooklyn rain that cools and clears the sizzling summer streets, and portends the torrid winter to come. The night mist spritzes my father and me on our way home from shul. I am wearing my yellow plastic slicker, run-walking, trying not to slip, to keep up with my father’s lengthy paces. I put my right sleeve in my mouth, while my left holds my father’s yanking hand. The rubber is wet. I am thirsty, and it tastes good. I let some more rain gather on the edge of the sleeve, and then suck it off, delicately. My father doesn’t notice. I am drinking. On Yom Kippur. A sin.

Oh, there were many sins for which to repent.

"For the sin we have sinned before You
under duress and willingly,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
through hardness of the heart.
For the sin we have sinned before You
without knowledge,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
with utterance of the lips…."

A sin for every occasion. The Artscroll Machzor lists one for each letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, which we recite about 10 times throughout Yom Kippur, pounding our hearts in repentance.

There we are, crowded in one row: My mother, her mother and me, sandwiched between my older and younger sister. On rickety metal chairs with sticky red vinyl cushions, in the basement "break-away minyan," the five of us stand, sit, stand, sit, each time the ark is opened and closed.

We take our right hands in a fist, and pound our hearts for every sin. My elder sister, nearly as pious as God, sways and pounds fervently, like a metronome, carefully iterating every word, loudly. Too loud.

"You’re supposed to whisper," I tell her.

Another sin. Talking during davening.

My grandmother doesn’t say the words at all. I watch her lips and they aren’t moving.

"You’re supposed to talk them," I tell her. Me, the little rebbetzin.

"I’m reading them to myself," she says. I am disappointed. Also, look at how she pounds her heart — with an open hand, tepidly, as if caressing herself. What kind of repentance is that?

And forget my mother. She pounds her heart perfectly in time. Her hand is just the right shape, but it is her heart that isn’t in it. I see it, but I say nothing. Because you can’t tell someone who doesn’t care about sinning to repent. It’s like arguing with a color-blind person about fall fashion. It’s just not applicable.

But as much as I am watching those around me, it is my own young soul for which I am mildly terrified. I think that this anxiety over the holidays originated in my schooling, the prayers themselves, and, if I want to be psychoanalytic about most of my religious hang-ups — from my father.

We learned that on Yom Kippur you ask God for forgiveness for all your sins, but prior to synagogue, during the 10 Days of Repentance, you are supposed to deal with your fellow Jews. The sins you did onto them — the ones they know about and the ones they didn’t know about (which were most of them, presenting another question: Did you have to actually tell them about the times you made fun of them, making them feel bad in order to exonerate yourself?). Otherwise you had no business asking God for forgiveness. If you sincerely asked a person three separate times for forgiveness (saying in one breath, "I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry," doesn’t count) and they refused to forgive you, the sin was upon them, according to Jewish law.

As a child, I lay in dread of asking my father for forgiveness — like asking for an expensive after-school trip, it seems fraught with doom and rejection; and as I grew older, even as I gave up this parent/child exchange, I use the High Holidays to reconcile with other people I might have wronged. It’s the one custom that remains, though few others do.

Yom Kippurs pass, awesome in their familiarity, and standing between my mother and older sister, my piety vacillates: I’m repentant, at times, and questioning at others.

"For the sin that we have sinned before You
through denial and false promises…."

This is the one I have the most trouble with. My false promises.

Yes, I know. In the three steps of repentance — acknowledgment of the sin, regret for the sin and a promise not to do the sin again — I am clear on the first two. But year after year, I find myself in shul, making the same promises, having the same regrets, seeing the same failures — with new ones added to boot.

And I grow weary. Wary. How could I be here every year saying the same things, knowing I wouldn’t manage to keep my word? How meaningless is that? It’s like a Hollywood marriage — they say the vows, but everyone knows that it will never last.

"For the sin that we have sinned before You
in public or in private,
and for the sin we have sinned before You
with immorality."

Years after I leave Brooklyn, I am beyond my girlish desires of hoping not to sin again. On Yom Kippur I stand there, knowing I will sin. I know I will violate the Sabbath, conduct "lewd" acts, eat in a non-kosher restaurant and countless other wrongs. But, I think, who says these are really sins? (Sin: Haughtiness.)

In my 20s I reached a point where I didn’t even consider these things sins. In Judaism, it seems, the more observant you are, the more you have to worry about. The most pious rabbi, the one who never said an unkind word to a soul and spent all his time studying Torah, sits crying for days before Yom Kippur. On the other hand, my Sunday school friend eats cheeseburgers on the beach on Rosh Hashana, and thinks, "Hey, I’m a pretty good person. I am nice to my mother, I pay my taxes. What do I have to worry about?"

Which person would you rather be?

So, as an adult, with no one to force me to go to services, I take a break from the holiday, the angry angels, with their copious note-taking on my deeds, tallying them up like Santa’s elves, with the prize being life. The break occurs inadvertently. My non-religious boyfriend won’t come to synagogue with me. "It’s boring," he says. I had never considered this obvious possibility, synagogue being boring. Especially if you take your prayers seriously; and you have to, don’t you? Or not.

I start to "cut" services on the High Holidays. I don’t go to the beach or do anything quite so rebellious, I just sleep in or go for a walk in the park. (Sin: "We have strayed.")

But still the High Holiday angst does not disappear; it comes regularly, mid-August, like a seasonal occurrence, among the turning leaves and shorter days. I ride it out like a panic attack or a tornado, waiting for the storm to descend, descend, envelop, then disappear by the time Sukkot rolls around.

A few years back I am invited to a Traditional synagogue. Since I no longer identify as "religious," I think that there is no harm in going there, despite my strict training against other streams of Judaism, which, in truth, have always seemed as foreign to me as another religion.

I arrive just in time for the Musaf service. And it seems as if I have never left. They are reading the same verse as years prior. My heart starts to pound, and I ready my hand for the sin lists. But they don’t beat themselves, as they read aloud: "We abuse, we betray, we are cruel."

Hey, those don’t seem so bad, I think. "We destroy, we embitter, we falsify," OK, I can handle this, I say to myself. "We gossip, we hate, we insult…." I don’t recall the prayers being this easy. They aren’t as negative as I remember. Or is it my childhood Bogeyman that frightened me so?

As I read through this list of sins, I feel a sense of possibility. Hey, I can do this, I think. I can be this person. I may have a shot at being a good Jew.

No, this is not solely about denominations — sure, this is a different Machzor I read, a different translation, with only half the sins, interpreted in a way that I can apply to my life without feeling like an utter and complete failure. But it’s more than that. Reading the holiday from a different perspective — instead of the same words I had read since childhood, with the voice of my father/teachers/rabbis embedded within — introduces to me a concept so integral to Yom Kippur, but one that I had forgotten: Forgiveness.

All my life, I worried so about my sins, my wrongdoings, my faults, my failures, that the only image I had was of a vengeful, exacting God towering above us mercilessly.

"For all these sins, forgiving God,
forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement."

These words are there in every Machzor, but this time, I am old enough — distanced enough? — to hear it. If God is so great and awesome, won’t he be more apt to overlook, excuse, and yes, forgive me for the sins I have committed? Could there be another God than the one that I grew up with?

It’s been two decades since my first "real" Yom Kippur, and I still don’t have the answer to that. Or to any of my other questions on sin and repentance, observance and disobedience.

Nonetheless, I have recently returned to services, sporadically. This year, at the Tashlich services, when we gathered at the ocean to throw bread in the water to symbolize the casting away of our sins, a school of dolphins swims up, nearly to meet us. The dolphins jump and dive as we lob out day-old raisin challah, and while I’m not sure that they eat our bread, as I stand there, knee-deep in the salty high tide, I think it is a sign. Maybe my sins — whatever they are, however and whoever is counting — will be forgiven. Maybe.