During Elul, the month before the start of the High Holidays, the shofar is sounded every morning. After a slow summer, this can have a jarring effect, and that’s exactly the point.
“It’s a quiet summer, most rabbis take a few weeks off in the summer, nobody plans bar mitzvahs, and then boom! We blast the shofar every morning, and then you get in the spirit,” said Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez of Temple Sinai in Marblehead.
But what exactly is that spirit? What should it be, and how does it actually play out? The High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 29-Oct. 1, and Yom Kippur, Oct. 8-9 – are an exceptionally busy and important time for synagogues. These solemn, holy days are the only time of year when most of the congregation is in the synagogue, ready to pray and to listen.
Rabbis on the North Shore see the High Holidays as a rare chance to connect many people with God, and they take that task very seriously.
“The goal is to connect and move people,” said Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of Chabad Lubavitch of Peabody. “If I could move one person, if I move 100, 300 people – if I can move anyone slightly further in their Judaism, even if it’s simply to have a greater passion and joy in their Judaism, then mission accomplished.”
Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid, also in Peabody, finds joy in serving as a conduit between God and his congregation, including those who rarely attend services. “I was always taught that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, people who come specifically for that – people sometimes say, ‘Oh, they’re three-times-a-year Jews,’” said Perlman. “But at least they come, and at least they have some reason for coming, and they’re relying on the messenger of the people to get their message across to God …and they require the professional who’s trained to talk to God to do it for them.”
To prepare for the spiritual, emotional, and logistical challenges of facilitating a meaningful experience for hundreds of people, rabbis begin by turning inward. Some prefer quiet meditation, like Schusterman, who swears off the noise and chatter of his smartphone until after Yom Kippur, and instead goes to Lynch Park in Beverly to read, write, and think in front of the ocean. Perlman opts for a slightly louder form of meditation – he says he does some of his best thinking while mowing his lawn.
The rabbis spend the month before the High Holidays preparing as many as four sermons, which means a lot of reading. “We’re a very sermon-centric temple, and they want to hear what you have to say,” said Cohen-Henriquez of Temple Sinai. “It’s going to be my fifth year writing three sermons, and right now books are popping out of my bookshelf, and sometimes I read one sentence from one, and open another – it’s almost like book alchemy.”
Writing many sermons for a large crowd is tough: Rabbis need to find fresh, timely takes on topics they’ve been discussing for years. They must also cover sensitive issues like anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism without wading into the hornet’s nest of contemporary politics.
“I think about what’s important in the Jewish world, I think about what’s timeless in Jewish life, and I try to offer a blend of different prayers and messages over the course of the time,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, who noted that he has completely reworked his sermons just days before Rosh Hashanah because of events like 9/11. “There’s nothing simple about taking seriously the opportunity and obligation to deliver sermons to my congregation.”
Schusterman tries hard to make his sermon and service exciting and meaningful. “We have the most unorthodox Orthodox service that I’m aware of,” he said. “I do running commentary all throughout the service: stories, jokes, anecdotes, vignettes, explanations of services …[otherwise] it can become very rote, stodgy, boring. It shouldn’t be the worst three hours of peoples’ lives, it should be the best.”
Schusterman compared his High Holiday services to a classic deli sandwich: the meat is still there, but it’s embellished by various seasonings and condiments.
Unlike the sermon, the liturgy can remain the same year after year, but coordinating an engaging service, complete with aliyot and the right mix of Hebrew and English, also is challenging. Some rabbis, like Perlman and Cohen-Henriquez, make only small tweaks, like trying a new melody or adding a new English reading. Perlman meets with Associate Rabbi Bernie Horowitz, and Cohen-Henriquez with Cantor David Aronson to coordinate services that need to run like clockwork.
Behind the majesty of the services are a small army of people working to keep everything – from seating, to aliyot, to ushers, to financials – running like clockwork. Rabbis like to check in from time to time, but for the most part, they avoid logistics.
“When I was younger, I tried to do everything, and then I realized that I can’t – they’ve asked me to be their rabbi and their cantor, the person that brings them holiness or at least brings them closer,” said Perlman. “We have wonderful, amazing staff who handle the business part of the synagogue – the tickets, the security, the chairs, the setup, the whole thing.”
Everyone works in concert to ensure that the High Holidays are the Days of Awe – a unique season of pondering and prayer. “Life’s coming to a different shift around this time of year,” said Cohen-Henriquez. “Things are changing.”