Utah Jews enter High Holy Days with high-minded goals: to better themselves and the world

Whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist, followers see Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as a time of deep reflection, repentance and resolve.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rob Mayer, Betsy Smith and Carol Blackwell from Chavurah B'Yachad (Reconstructionist) prepare gift packets Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, for their members to mark Rosh Hashana.

Listen carefully during the daylight hours of Tuesday and Wednesday, and you may hear the blasts of the shofar rising from synagogues along the Wasatch Front.

From a twisted ram’s horn come tones both alarming and plaintive, at the same time triumphant and hauntingly like the sobs of a lost child for its mother: This is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which begins Monday evening — a two-day observance as rich in millennia-old traditions as it is in how 21st-century Jews in Utah and across the planet understand and experience the holiday.

“Rosh Hashana has so many different meanings to it,” Rabbi Samuel Spector of Salt Lake City’s Congregation Kol Ami acknowledges. “In Judaism, we say that this was the day that God created humankind. There is a big focus during Rosh Hashana on togetherness, on seeing the holiness and humanity and one another, and in coming together as a community.

“It’s a time for us to really reset. Ten days later is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement,” Spector says. “We learn that, leading up to Yom Kippur, we are supposed to do an accounting of our souls and think about how we can be better, how we can both make our world better and be better ourselves, and make our world better in the new year.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbi Samuel Spector at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on Thursday Oct. 3, 2019. Spector says Rosh Hashana is largely about seeing holiness and humanity and one another, and in coming together as a community.

Last year, COVID-19 restrictions truncated — and in some cases canceled — the in-person celebrations of Rosh Hashana as well as other Jewish holidays. Pandemic fears have eased enough this year to allow a measured return to more traditional congregational gatherings, though vaccinations, masks and social distancing — along with livestreaming of services — will once more be offered to worshippers.

At Kol Ami, 2425 E. Heritage Way (2760 South), proof of vaccination will be necessary for attendees 12 years and older, with masks required for all ages 3 and above.

Nonetheless, Rosh Hashana 2021 (or 5782 on the Jewish calendar) will mark the return of the holiday’s festive character.

“Rosh Hashana is both celebratory and a time for us to recalibrate, if you will,” Spector explains. “It’s a time of year we can see our entire community, and that will be great…. A lot of people have dinner together; it’s a nice holiday, an upbeat holiday.”

Orthodox Rabbi Avremi Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah also anticipates joyous, in-person gatherings this Rosh Hashana with his Salt Lake City-based (1760 S. 1100 East), community of about 700 families. While Chabad has a reputation for being one of the most ardent movements when it comes to observing Jewish laws, traditions and beliefs, Zippel stresses that “all children of Israel are welcome,” regardless of their religious (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc.) labels.

“Those dividing lines are nothing but divisions that need not be in place.” Zippel explains. “We believe that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. They are forever welcome and encouraged to attend and discover the beauty of their heritage.”

Elevating the world

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rabbi Avremi Zippel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah says Rosh Hashana is "the day God decided to put a purpose into the world and create humans to help elevate the world to its fullest potential."

In that vein, Chabad Lubavitch embraces the disciplines and teachings of Kabbalah, an ancient, esoteric Jewish mystical tradition, as part of that heritage — and one that enriches understanding of Rosh Hashana itself.

“Kabbalah is effectively the deepest secrets of Judaism,” Zippel says. “It teaches us on the most profound level possible what is really behind every observance, every celebration, every meaningful thing that we do on the holidays or any given day of the year.”

Specific to Rosh Hashana, for example, kabbalistic masters see the holiday in terms of an annual cosmic drama: On the eve of Rosh Hashana, the world slips into a spiritual slumber, renewed the following dawn when the blasts of the shofar mark God’s sovereignty over, and recommitment to, existence of life and the universe itself.

“This is the day God decided to put a purpose into the world and create humans to help elevate the world to its fullest potential,” Zippel adds. “It is in reigniting that purpose that we mark each and every year on Rosh Hashana.”

Rabbi David Levinsky of Park City’s Temple Har Shalom says his 325-family Reform congregation will blow the shofar, pray and honor many traditional rituals, but it practices a more nuanced understanding of the coming religious holidays.

“Most Reform Jews do not embrace traditional rabbinic theology that sees God judging us for good or less-than-good behavior between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur,” he says. “Instead, they see [this period] as a time for improving ourselves, improving our world, and improving our relationships.”

Steps of repentance

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Park City bTemple Har Shalom Rabbi David Levinsky, shown in 2015 and known by some as Utah's skateboarding rabbi, says most Reform Jews see High Holy Days "as a time for improving ourselves, improving our world, and improving our relationships.”

For all observant Jews, the concept of “teshuvah,” or repentance, is a core theme of the 10-day High Holidays period that begins with Rosh Hashana. Along with seeking forgiveness for sins against God and humankind alike, teshuvah emphasizes an internal spiritual audit.

Levinsky says that process starts with regret for wrongdoing, continues with identifying the cause inside oneself for the act, and apologizing to and making amends to the person offended.

“The fourth step is resolving not to make the same mistake again,” the rabbi explains. “Only then do we bring the issue to God and confess directly to the Divine.”

Temple Har Shalom, 3700 N. Brookside Court in Park City, also anticipates a return to in-person services, though Levinsky’s congregation will do so cautiously, given concerns rising from the delta variant.

“Last year, we were wholly on Zoom [livestreaming] due to COVID,” he says. “This year, some of our congregants will choose to be in person with mitigation for COVID [i.e., masks, proof of vaccinations] and other congregants will choose to participate on Zoom.”

Salt Lake City’s Chavurah B’Yachad community will hold its in-person morning Rosh Hashana and later Yom Kippur services in outdoor space provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Garden Park Ward, 1150 E. Yale Ave. For evening services, the Reconstructing Judaism congregation of 45 families will rely on Zoom.

(Courtesy photo) Maeera Shreiber, an associate professor of English at the University of Utah and second-year rabbinical student for Chavurah B’Yachad, says High Holidays is a time to connect with God and others.

Maeera Shreiber, an associate professor of English at the University of Utah who also serves Chavurah as a second-year rabbinical student, stresses that her congregation welcomes anyone to visit, Jewish or not.

As a self-identified “progressive” movement within Judaism, the Reconstructing Judaism adherents can be far more liberal in adherence to Jewish commandments and theology. To varying degrees, commandments are seen as “folkways,” a code of conduct in need of ongoing reinterpretation to be relevant in modern times.

That mindset is reflected in the ways Chavurah will observe Rosh Hashana, though Shreiber asserts the heart of the holiday remains the same for Jews of all persuasions: introspection on the triumphs and shortcomings on both personal and community levels.

‘Begin to make connection’

“It’s really an extraordinary opportunity to enter into a very capacious spiritual space,” she says. “[We ask] what does it mean to be a Jew at this moment in time, you know, and we’re looking around at a world in peril.”

Shreiber adds that, “You direct your soul, your being toward what you want to pay attention to this year; you reflect upon it in the process of prayer; and then you begin to make the connection with others and with God so you will be able to enter this ‘new world’ in a more powerful and focused way.”

One way Chavurah members will do that is by participating in various Jordan River Parkway cleanup efforts during the Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur period.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Betsy Smith, Rob Mayer and Carol Blackwell from Chavurah B'Yachad (Reconstructionist) prepare gift packets Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, for their members to mark Rosh Hashana.

And then there’s Betsy Smith, who has enlisted several others to add a personal touch to the holidays — especially for those unable to leave their homes or attend services due to age- or health-related issues.

“We started our Rosh Hashana gift bags last year,” says Smith, a Jordan School District psychologist and grandmother who helped found the Utah Chavurah congregation in 1985. “They each contain an apple, a honey cake, a honey stick and a card. This year we [are adding] small cardboard suitcases [and] putting a few candies in them for enjoyment.”

The miniature suitcase gifts also will include slips of paper for reflecting on both the past year’s personal shortcomings and ways to avoid them.

“It is time,” Smith says, “to think about what stood in your way of making a complete teshuvah, to write it down and pack it up” — by getting rid of that old baggage before journeying into the new year.

Correction Sept. 5, 10:50 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct that the shofar for Rosh Hashana, which begins Monday evening, sounds during daylight hours Tuesday and Wednesday.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gift packets prepared Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, for members of rom Chavurah B'Yachad (Reconstructionist).

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