Early Rosh Hashanah Means Time for Contemplation Is Now


For parents, it's all about packing away buckets and sand shovels, and hauling out dressy clothes. For their children, it means transitioning from playing on the beach to sitting quietly in shul.

For synagogue choirs, it means having virtually no time to practice the intricate melodies and depending on the sense memories of last year's tunes.

And for rabbis, it means firing up the congregation while the rest of the country is still firing up the grill.

Wednesday evening, Sept. 8, marks the first evening of Rosh Hashanah 5771, just two days after Labor Day. When the High Holidays follow so hard on the unofficial end of summer, area synagogues, their leaders and their members grapple with a particular challenge, most agree.

"The August lull" did not happen this year, "that's for sure," said Melissa Johnson, executive director at Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood. "The intensity is high, and we're all working very hard."

Local rabbis say congregants are right if they sense that the holiest period in the Judaic life-cycle is falling earlier this year than most, echoing the oft-voiced observation that the holidays never come "on time."

Blame it on the vagaries of the Jewish calendar, which takes into account not only the revolution of the Earth around the sun, but also the rotation of the Earth on its axis and the revolution of the moon around the Earth.

"Every culture has its own way of measuring time and counting days. Ours is a version of the ancient Babylonian calendar," explained Senior Rabbi Lance J. Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.

The Jewish calendar is essentially lunar, the secular calendar is solar, and the way they mesh creates a 19-year cycle with seven-leap years, said the rabbi.

So while most American holidays are fixed in time — July 4th is July 4th, no matter what year it is — the Jewish holidays are pegged to a schedule that permits a certain amount of temporal drift. In the case of Rosh Hashanah, literally the "first of the year," the observance can fall anywhere from the beginning of September to early October.

"Having the holidays early like this sort of upsets the rhythm of the year," attested Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Wynnewood. "Normally, when you get back from summer, rabbis have time to work on sermons, and congregants have time to gear up for the holidays."

Wryly acknowledging that he's probably in the minority among his colleagues, Cooper, who is marking his 30th year in the pulpit, said that he actually welcomes the earlier scheduling of services.

"Even though it cuts into my free time over the summer, it feels as though we have more time to do things in the fall, more time for programming," he said. "Sure, it's a little harder in the summer to gear yourself up; still, the goal of all of us is to not leave all these things to the last minute."

Continuing in that vein, the rabbi added: "I really do think about the High Holidays long before they start, think about what I want to talk about, so the good part for me is that the summer gives me unstructured time to work on these things."

At Mikveh Israel, a traditional Sephardi synagogue in Center City, the list of "honors" — who will be called to the Torah for an aliyah, who will open the ark — went out in the mail particularly early, said executive director Ida Pomerantz.

"We have to just move our calendar up when the holidays come this early," she said. "In this office, we usually start the mailings in August, but it could be as early as June."

Such was the case this year as the synagogue continues to reorganize and revamp in light of the impending move by the National Museum of American Jewish History, with which it has long shared quarters, to new and larger facilities just down the road.

"We've already started making arrangements for Sukkot," added Pomerantz, noting that every one of the fall holidays draws "very, very large crowds" to the relatively small synagogue.

Shofar Before School Bell

Meanwhile, some 17 miles to the west, workers at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford are racing to put the finishing touches on a new chair lift being installed in the sanctuary in time for the first blessings of the Torah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

"We have a large population over 60, various members who use walkers or wheelchairs, and others who are visiting. They really deserve access to the bimah," said Josh Laster, executive director at the 310-family Conservative synagogue. "The whole idea is inclusiveness."

Located where the building's choir section used to be, the lift is part of the synagogue's strategic plan, and has been under construction since July. Laster saluted the vendors who moved quickly to make the accommodation a reality, and pointed out a serendipitous coincidence: The Americans with Disabilities Act, a wide-ranging civil-rights package designed to open doors to the handicapped, is marking its 20th anniversary this year.

While few local synagogues are grappling with such renovations to their physical plant right now, all are facing a perplexing educational issue: Young children will hear the piercing blasts of the ram's horn before they hear the first bell summoning them to the religious-school classroom.

That means, according to education directors and principals, less time to give them a solid grounding in the season's spiritual and historical context. But many take the situation in stride.

"Kids this year may not have a chance to learn about Rosh Hashanah before the holiday, but that is not a concern to me" since they get those lessons over time, said Rabbi Kevin Bernstein, education director at Germantown Jewish Centre in Mount Airy, where religious-school classes do not start this year until after Yom Kippur.

Bernstein instructs his staff to get creative.

"It's strange to study about Rosh Hashanah in May, but there's nothing wrong with it," he said — and he also looks to supplemental programming to fill in any gaps.

This year, for the second time, members of the Germantown synagogue's community, both adults and children, will gather on the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to visit King David Memorial Park, a cemetery in Bensalem where a significant number of the congregation's founders are buried.

Bernstein and other synagogue officials will turn the outing into a teachable moment, explaining the Jewish custom of visiting long-departed relatives at holiday time and weaving in a timely history lesson or two as well.

And the rabbis and cantors themselves, those charged with nurturing the spark within their congregants and themselves? How do they prepare themselves for the spiritual marathon?

In addition to blowing the shofar during morning minyan at Wallingford's Ohev Shalom — a tradition during the month of Elul, preceding Rosh Hashanah — Cantor Stephen Friedrich has been psyching himself up all summer by reading appropriate liturgical literature and texts.

"This year, I concentrated on the Unetanah Tokef prayer," said Friedrich, referring to the stirring poem chanted several times during the course of the High Holiday services, with its familiar theme of who shall live and who shall die.

"God wants us to be reflective over the year we just had. The Unetanah Tokef speaks about how God sits in judgment over us — how he wants to be as fair with us as he wants us to be when we judge other people," said the cantor.

At Keneseth Israel, Sussman said that he spent the better part of July and August drafting sermons on Ahavat Yisrael ("love of Israel") and chiddur mitzvah ("glorifying Judaism through art") — two of several core values the synagogue plans to concentrate on this year.

But in the same vein, he noted that he cherished the time those months provided as a respite before all of the holidays descend.

"Summer is a sort of Shabbat for the soul; it's all about replenishing, rewinding," said the rabbi.

And if anyone thinks the holidays arrive early this year, just wait until 2013: Labor Day falls on Sept. 2.

As for Erev Rosh Hashanah? That would be Sept. 4.


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