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Celebrating Community Around Jewish High Holy Days

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Rabbi Geri Newburge of Main Line Reform Temple reflects on why togetherness is more important now than ever.

By Rabbi Geri Newburge

If you’re ready for this year to be over, you’re not alone. Jews around the world have a head start on turning the calendar pages. In September, we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. According to the Hebrew calendar, the year is 5781.

But it’s still 2020 in the secular world, and it’s been one of the most difficult years in recent memory. COVID-19 is new, but old problems continue to plague us. Systemic racism, misogyny, economic inequities and educational disparities are only a few of the issues that have made headlines this year—and challenged us.

During these dark times, my community is perhaps the most important aspect of Judaism, and perhaps all religions and organizations. We want community when we celebrate a new baby, bar/bat mitzvah or wedding. Similarly, we need community when we have suffered a loss, struggle with our place in this world, or need to make sense of the senseless.

Rabbi Hillel, one of Judaism’s great leaders, was born in 100 BCE. Although he lived in ancient times, Hillel’s writings are perfect for our modern world and its challenges. He wrote, Al tifrosh min hatzibur. In English, it means, “Do not separate yourself from the community.”

If we’re not separating, we must be gathering or connecting. But how, when, and for what purpose? To many Jewish scholars, Hillel’s words indicate that being part of a community is essential, and not just when it’s convenient.

When I flounder with balancing my roles as wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend and rabbi, I draw upon the strength and discernment of the many other women I know who fill the same roles. Luckily, because I am a congregational rabbi, I have the distinct advantage of having access to a plethora of Jewish mothers, all of whom are happy to share their life experiences and recommendations with me. And I have the sense to listen to their guidance. I’m listening to my inner guidance, too.

With Rosh Hashanah comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the other “High Holy Day” and the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The 10 days between the two holidays are called the Days of Awe. They’re a time of introspection, repentance and forgiveness. During this period, it’s incumbent upon us to assess the errors of our ways, repent for them and seek forgiveness from those we have hurt or offended.

My hope and prayer is that our world’s numerous difficulties illuminate the benefits of community and the holistic advantages to being a part of it. My hope and prayer is that negotiating our current challenges breeds resilience and determination in each of us—especially in our children.

While we enter this Jewish new year under circumstances that are less than ideal, I have faith that, with the strength of family, friends and community, we will endure and we will prosper. May it truly be a shanah tovah, a good year, for one and all.

Geri Newburge is a rabbi at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood.

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