Local Jews observe High Holy Days

Celebration and feasting, reflection and fasting mark cycle of renewal, repentance

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Happy New Year 5774!

That's not science fiction. It's Judaism. According to an ancient lunar calendar that's still used by Jews, it's been that many years since the world was created.

Wednesday sundown marked the beginning of the Jewish New Year and what are called the High Holy Days. Vancouver's two main Jewish congregations are observing the 10-day cycle of repentance and renewal with worship services and special activities — from celebration and feasting to serious reflection and fasting.

All of which is kicked off by the ritual blowing of the shofar — the ram's horn — which Rabbi Shmulik Greenberg of the orthodox Chabad Jewish Center previewed on Wednesday afternoon. The real blowing of the shofar occurred later in the day, at sundown, with no cameras allowed.

"It is the cry of the alarm. It's telling the people, it's time to get serious," Greenberg said.

That's the beginning of Rosh Hashana, the start of the New Year and a period of judgment. The 10 days that follow are considered days

of repentance, including a ritual casting away of sins into water. Congregation Kol Ami, Clark County's reform Jewish group, plans to do this — it's called the Taschlich Service — at Klineline Pond at 4:30 p.m. today, and the public is welcome.

Those days of repentance aren't wall-to-wall self-reflection with downcast eyes, Greenberg said. "Rosh Hashana is the world's birthday," Greenberg said. "We celebrate the creation."

Nonetheless, the overall occasion is a serious one, he said, and it winds up 10 days later on Yom Kippur, a day of solemn rest and repentance and the holiest day of the Jewish year. Strict adherents undertake 25 hours of fasting and intensive prayer on Yom Kippur.

"The High Holy Days are about renewal, about looking back over our life and evaluating truly how we have lived, what can we be proud of and where are the places we have missed the mark," said Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker of Congregation Kol Ami, 7800 N.E. 119th St. "Have we hurt others? Do we need to make amends? We need to always evaluate and re-evaluate if we are bringing more holiness into the world. This time of year and these High Holy Days are meant to remind us of that and encourage us always to do better."

Greenberg said the High Holy Days are when God "rethinks whether he wants to continue this world or not." And it's a time when people must ask God for forgiveness. "Time after time, we ask God for forgiveness and time after time he says yes. With God there is no limit. It's never too late. That is the final judgment on Yom Kippur."

He said the truly joyful holiday, Sukkot, is later in the month — this year it's Sept. 19 through 26 — and it's full of feasts, music and dancing.

Diaspora

Jews make up a small fraction of Clark County: about 3,000 people, according to a recent survey by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland. Some within the community have noted that modern Jews aren't always joiners, and tend to maintain a pretty low profile -- at least here in the American West.

In a sermon from last year's Rosh Hashana that is posted on the Kol Ami website, Dunsker pointed out that local roads are full of cars with bumperstickers that proclaim drivers' Christianity; she said she can't imagine Jews sticking Stars of David on their cars.

But Greenberg, an Israeli native and part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement that spread from Brooklyn, N.Y., after World War II, came to Clark County 10 years ago "to bring Jews out of the shadow," he said.

"When people are in diaspora, sometimes they want to blend in and not be so visible," he said. "But we have freedom to practice our religion the way we choose, thank God. That's a major point in human history."

He said the half-donated, half-leased business-park space that Chabad Jewish Center occupies at 9604 N.E. 126th Ave. has been remodeled to look as stylish as a Pearl District restaurant.

"We would like to remind Jews who don't come to worship that this is the New Year," he said. "Judaism is not something from the past. The tradition is old, but the world we live in is modern. You can be a religious person and still use an iPod."

Dunsker said that being a modern American Jew in Southwest Washington is "a mixed bag."

"Having the public schools begin on the same day Rosh Hashanah begins is a challenge. Every year I hear from distressed families about how the schools often discourage Jewish participation by scheduling concerts during Passover seders, or back to school nights during Yom Kippur. It is tiresome to always have to ask for our important holidays to be taken into account," she said.

"On the other hand, the city government of Vancouver has been overwhelmingly supportive of our congregation and of our synagogue. When we opened the doors of our new home last year, we were overwhelmed with gifts and well-wishes from non-Jewish folks. We had a lot of support and continue to have wonderful relationships with our neighbors."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.