Area rabbis reflect on meaning of Rosh Hashanah


In anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, four prominent New Orleans area rabbis discussed their thoughts about the holiday, noting in particular its unique relationship to personal change and time. Rosh Hashanah, which marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, is celebrated on the first and second days of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar and begins at sundown tonight, September 20. The holiday commences the period of ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur known in Judaism as the High Holy Days or the Days of Awe.

Shir Chadash Rabbi Deborah Silver and Gates of Prayer Rabbi Robert Loewy at Federation Starry Soiree. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Rabbi Robert Loewy, the rabbi of Congregation Gates of Prayer, the Reform synagogue in Metairie, emphasized that the concept of change is central to Rosh Hashanah. “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about change, adjusting to change, and changing ourselves,” Loewy said in a phone interview with the CCJN. Loewy, who will be stepping down from the pulpit at Congregation Gates of Prayer in 2018 after 34 years to become an emeritus rabbi, stated he will discuss this particular shift when he addresses his congregation on Rosh Hashanah.

“While much of this congregation and many of the congregants are linked to me personally, when the next year comes I hope they are going to be open to a new rabbi who will bring different qualities, values, characteristics, and enthusiasm to the congregation from where my priorities may have been,” Loewy remarked before adding, “The concept of teshuvah is: are we willing to change?”

“Teshuvah,” which in Hebrew literally means “repentance,” is a period of intensive self-reflection undertaken by many Jews during the High Holy Days. But as Rabbi Deborah Silver, the rabbi of Metairie’s Shir Chadash Conservative Synagogue, points out, the word carries other resonances.

“My preferred translation of ‘teshuvah’ is change,” said Silver, who holds a degree in the Theory and Practice of Literary Translation from the University of Essex, England.

Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg of Congregation Beth Israel.

Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue also located in Metairie, expanded on this idea. “We often find that our struggles from year to year remain the same, whether spiritual, personal, individual, or collective. We pray that this year will finally be the one where we are able to change our lives for the better in whatever way we need to,” Greenberg wrote via email.

Many of the rabbis interviewed also discussed the complex experience of time during Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days. Though Rosh Hashanah celebrates the beginning of a New Year on the Jewish calendar, the holiday also marks a period of remembrance. “Rosh Hashanah is a great example of Judaism’s approach to time more generally,” Greenberg wrote. It is, according to Greenberg, an “intersection between the spiral and cyclical nature of time” and the “linear nature of time we’re more used to.”

Rabbi Matthew Reimer, the senior rabbi of Temple Sinai, one of two Uptown Reform synagogues, elaborated on a similar idea. “Time is both always moving forward and cyclical. Our Jewish calendar is the perfect example of that. We repeat everything, right down to our very text – we read it every single year,” Reimer offered in a telephone interview.

Reimer probed the holiday’s approach to time by posing a question. “Knowing that time is always moving forward, how do you then address the fact that you’re doing a review of the year that was in order to look ahead?” he asked.

Temple Sinai Senior Rabbi Matthew Reimer. (Photo by Alan Smason)

In Judaism this remembrance is referred to as “zichronot,” which is sounded by the second of three blowings on the shofar. The blowing of the shofar is performed in services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Loewy described “zichronot” as the moment when “we remember the moments of interaction over time” with God and, furthermore, as when “we remember the sense of a covenant that we have with God.” Commenting further on Rosh Hashanah’s relationship with remembrance, Loewy stated, “Honoring memory is a way not only to honor those that went before us, but it also is a reminder of who we are as a result of who they were.”

Each of the rabbis indicated they will speak about a variety of topics when they address their respective congregations on Wednesday night. Reimer plans on emphasizing the importance of personal happiness to his congregants at Temple Sinai before he transitions to a sermon against anti-Semitism. “The first sermon I am giving on Erev Rosh Hashanah is a fairly simple sermon, yet I hope it resonates with people: there are things that we can do, that we have full control over, to be happier. Happiness is as much a part of who we should be as Jews and as humans as anything else,” Reimer said.

Silver plans to center her sermons at Shir Chadash around the concept of renewal. “I feel that over the past year it’s been a difficult world to live in. Our sensibilities are getting pummeled over and over again. The idea that this is a season in which we renew our hearts will be running as a theme throughout everything that I talk about,” Silver said.

While Loewy plans to discuss the imminent change in rabbis at Congregation Gates of Prayer, down the street at neighboring Beth Israel, Greenberg’s sermons will focus, in part, on the recent hurricanes that have devastated various communities in the United States and Caribbean islands. In the wake of the destructive natural disasters, Greenberg noted, “it makes sense to say that in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy God is a god of mercy.”

Twelve years after the catastrophic flooding of Hurricane Katrina, Greenberg’s discussion of the recent hurricanes will likely be a poignant subject for his congregation, which moved to Metairie after Katrina floodwaters destroyed the congregation’s former location in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans.

On that note, Silver offered insight into the significance of celebrating Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days in New Orleans, observing that New Orleans is a place that has “the capacity to celebrate what is here and to take joy in what is ephemeral. And that flows from a deep familiarity with what it means to be fragile.” That feeling, Silver added, is “very High Holy Days.”

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