Area rabbis discuss how to approach Rosh Hashanah


Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins tonight, September 9 and continues through the evening of September 11. It begins the period known as the Days of Awe or the Ten Days of Penitence, which culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Northshore Jewish Congregation’s Rabbi Alexis Pinsky. (Courtesy Alexis Pinsky)

In conjunction with the onset of the holiday, the CCJN surveyed several of the Greater New Orleans area rabbis to get some perspective on how they approach the observance of Rosh Hashanah. 

Rabbi Alexis Pinsky was formerly associated with the Hillel House at Tulane before deciding to enter the rabbinate. After receiving her rabbinic ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, she became an assistant rabbi at Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie for two years. Last year she served out a one-year contract at Touro Synagogue as an associate rabbi.

She has moved to New York, but contracted with the Northshore Jewish Congregation (NJC) to hold services for them for the High Holidays. She began her work on Friday night at the temple following the unfortunate graffiti incident there.

Now that the anti-Semitic graffiti has been removed, Pinsky believes the time is right to become immersed in prayer and move into the holidays with reverence both looking at the past and towards the future.  “I think Rosh Hashanah and the Holy Days season at large provide a great opportunity to do both,” she indicated in an email exchange with the CCJN. “Part of the process of teshuva and heshbon hanefesh are to take a spiritual accounting of yourself and your life; turning inwards for introspection as well as outwards to (the) surrounding community. I think the chance to look back provides great opportunity to then think about the coming year, and how we want to live.”

Touro Synagogue Senior Rabbi Alexis Berk, the longest-serving senior rabbi in the Greater New Orleans area. (Photo by Dean Shapiro)

Rabbi Alexis Berk of Touro Synagogue echoed those statements. Recently, both Senior Rabbis Robert Loewy at Congregation Gates of Prayer and Ed Paul Cohn last year at Temple Sinai assumed emeritus rabbi status. So, with the installation of Rabbi Matthew Reimer at Temple Sinai last year and the recent term begun by Senior Rabbi David Gerber at Congregation Gates of Prayer, Berk became the longest-serving senior rabbi in the Reform community. (Several Chabad rabbis have enjoyed longer terms, but they do not have designations as senior rabbis.)

“I believe we can’t do one without the other,” Berk stated. “(There is) reflection on what has been – forward looking to what can be, what could be and what should be. These happen in the same moment and are greatly influenced by one another.”

Being in the moment brings other consideration, she added. “Perhaps the biggest challenge of all (is) to be fully immersed in the moment for the trailhead of 5779 has never been before and will never be again.”

Meanwhile, Rabbi Gerber, added his own take on repentance and looking forward and backward within Judaism. “Judaism constantly requires us to look to our past–both individually and communally,” he explained in an email exchange with the CCJN. “The Torah readings leading up to Rosh Hashanah are largely a recollection of our immediate past in the Egypt and the desert. There is, however, a very specific purpose to retelling our history: it helps us move forward with knowledge and strength.”

Rabbi David Gerber of Congregation Gates of Prayer. (Photo courtesy Rabbi David Gerber)

Gerber mused that Jews have a common experience not shared with others. “Jews happen to have the longest history of any other religion, which means we have a wealth of experience upon which we can build our future,” he continued. “We consider the past as a means to looking towards the future. We carry with us our flaws and successes, our mistakes and triumphs, and we attempt to make each new year better than the last.”

Rabbi Yonah Schiller, who is the executive director and rabbi at the Goldie and Morris Mintz Hillel Center for Jewish Life at Tulane, added his own words to the dialog through email.  “I think it can be a real challenge to successfully chart the best path forward without being informed by what we have learned from our past experiences,” he began. “Our reflection becomes a critical building block to realizing our future aspirations. In this way, we need to be both looking back and also propelled forward to do great things, armed with a greater knowledge of self.”

Schiller looked at this aspect of circumspection as key to the practice of Judaism. “Negotiating and encouraging this bridge between our past and our future potential is one the greatest gifts Judaism has given us,” he said. “Ideally, we want to live like dreamers, with our feet firmly rooted in the here and now. If we can pull that off, we should all have a great year!”

Schiller stated that Jewish identity and growth in this country carries with it incredible potential. “As a community, if we can figure out how to position ourselves to both honor young Jews, while also giving them a voice for Jewish self-expression and definition, there is no limit to the impact we can have,” he proffered. “We have modeled the Hillel at Tulane, since its opening, on this belief. It has been fascinating and also affirming to see the Jewish population at Tulane be so responsive to this type of institutional proposition. By repositioning all our efforts around letting students define and create their Jewish life, we have seen a huge surge in their engagement, ownership and investment in both creating and participating in Jewish experiences.”

Rabbi Yonah Schiller of Tulane Hillel. (Photo courtesy Rabbi Yonah Schiller)

Schiller gives credit to his staff and the professionals working with him on his program as to its success.

Berk also went on to describe a new program instituted this year called Elul Evenings.  On Wednesdays from August 15 until September 5, there were four themes explored at sundown, when the rabbi would engage members of her synagogue.  “It’s been wonderful!” she exclaimed about the program.

Gerber remembers the High Holidays well because of his father. “When I was a child, my father used to bring a pack of Life Savers to services on the High Holidays. He would tell me that Jewish tradition allows for the consumption of Life Savers even on Yom Kippur. Based on the fact the the candy was well-hidden, I assumed this wasn’t truly Jewish Law,” he said.

“I don’t remember if either of us actually ate Life Savers on Yom Kippur, but this rule always stuck with me,” he continued. “During my first year of rabbinical school, which is probably 15-20 years after first learning this Yom Kippur law, I was studying in Jerusalem. Before school started, I began to study with an Israeli chevrutah (study partner). The first text we looked at was from the Mishnah.”

Rabbi Gerber continued: “My Hebrew was not great yet, but I was able to translate the first verse: Eating on Yom Kippur is not punishable until one has consumed food equal to the size of a date! The Life Saver rule was true all along!”

The rabbi felt he is obligated to clarify that “one should not eat Life Savers on Yom Kippur…we should make it a true fast as long as our health permits.” 

Only a rabbi can take a request about Rosh Hashanah and make it into a Yom Kippur story. It does give us “food for thought” and so we wish everyone a L’Shana tovah tikatevu.

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