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A Pre-Rosh Hashanah Blast of Spirituality

September 21, 2011 By:
Mordechai Shinefield, JE Feature
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Eyal, age 6 and Aviv, age 5, Haroz blowing shofars. Photo by Greg Bezanis

On a recent sunny Sunday, Rabbi Mendy Cohen gathered with about 30 kids and teen volunteers outside Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood to transmute goats' horns into shofars.

Decked out in safety goggles and workman's gloves, the rabbi from Chabad of the Main Line helped the young people measure the horns, cut them by hand with a hacksaw and drilled them with 5/32-inch standard drill bits.

While the kids needed help with the drilling, they were able to sand and shellac the shofars themselves. Ten minutes later, they were dry and ready to go.

This was one of Chabad's many shofar-making workshops taking place in the region this year -- at day schools, pre-schools and, for the first time, with the group's Friendship Circle, which organizes events for children with special needs.

For young and old, Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is a time of reflection. Beyond the shofar-making and other standard pre-holiday events, this year, a number of synagogues and other institutions have mixed in some non-traditional programming.

Organizers attribute the explosion of innovative events in part to the generosity of this year's Jewish calendar, which put Rosh Hashanah nearly a month after Labor Day and the start of the new school year.

When staff members of Gratz College in Melrose Park noticed that the High Holidays were "later" this year, they decided to do something with the extra time.

"We haven't really done High Holiday programming in the past because they came too early in the semester," said Mindy Blechman, coordinator of Gratz's Adult Jewish Studies program. This year, the extended period gave the staff an opportunity to inaugurate their Gratz a la carte continued education classes with "It's a Blast! High Holiday Lift Off."

Among their several offerings was a Sept. 14 shofar-blowing seminar with Jeffrey Miller, an Immaculata University trumpet instructor who has blown shofar with the New York Philharmonic. Dr. Craig Soffin, who has blown the shofar for 27 years at Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill, was one of the handful of people who made the trek to work with Miller.

"I had on-the-job training," he explained about why he decided to attend. "I was looking for some pointers and now I know that there's a range about what you can do."

Shofar-blowing isn't the only way to wake up the senses in advance of the most contemplative time of the year. Synagogues are providing new ways to engage congregants.

At Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, Rabbi David Ackerman, Hazzan Harold Messinger and some congregants worked together to deliver reflections over the Internet. Every morning of Elul, congregants can wake up to find a daily meditation about the High Holidays in their email boxes. "This is the first time we've really taken the High Holidays and Elul as a way to really get people to do more personal cheshbon nefesh kinds of stuff," Messinger said, referring to the personal accounting that goes on during the holidays.

So far, the reaction has been positive.

"I find the email keeps me attuned to this period of the year, and primes me to recognize moments when the world tries to talk to me," said congregant Nick Fiekowsky.

In another effort, this one aimed at teenagers, a group of Philadelphia Main Line area synagogues have joined together to host a first-ever, cross-synagogue music collaboration. Scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m. at Main Line Reform Temple, the musical effort has been spearheaded by Messinger, who calls it a "teen-rock-and-pop service," where young people can perform music addressing the themes of Selichot: self-examination, forgiveness and starting anew.

"It'll be experimental and experiential," Messinger said. "It'll be a participatory experience."

Participation was the keyword at a recent event at the National Museum of American Jewish History, where the New York-based Jewish nonprofit Reboot introduced its 10Q program, which asks participants to answer personal reflective questions and archive them online.

On Sept. 15, Ben Greenman, an editor at The New Yorker, led a panel discussion at the museum. You throw these 10 little questions out into the world, Greenman told the audience, and everyone will take them differently.

"This is not your grandmother's Rosh Hashanah program, or even your mother's Rosh Hashanah program," museum director Ivy Barsky said. "It's for people looking in a funny or serious way at the events that shaped them, or caused them to change direction, in the last year."

The 10Q's discussion was held in addition to a new interactive exhibition at the museum's Contemporary Issues Forum. There, the museum has four questions that visitors can answer on little stickies. For the month of September, the museum swapped out one of the regular questions for one that dealt directly with the themes of Elul, asking participants: "Has a significant experience this year caused you to reflect? How?"

Comments from earlier in the month were displayed during the event and attendees were invited to post their own multicolored stickies onto the black-lacquered boards.

Among the responses: "My car was hit by a train last year (2010) and I'm here very alive, very well, and very happy," wrote Susan from Philadelphia.

"YES. I move to Israel and I met the woman of my life. I'm feeling true love!" wrote Arie from Israel/Chile.

One of the Reboot panelists was novelist Matthue Roth, a Philadelphia native who now lives in New York. Coming back to Philadelphia, he acknowledged, felt a little weird.

"You work so hard to leave your past behind, and then you realize that it's still a part of you, and it's stronger than ever," he said, associating his return to Philadelphia with the High Holiday themes.

One of his books, Yom Kippur a Go-Go, is explicitly about teshuvah and repentance. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he said, are the perfect time to innovate and find new ways to express your feelings.

"Ideally, everything we do should be a new experience," Roth said. "Not preprogrammed or rote at all. Whether it's going to synagogue or writing a punk song about changing ourselves, or just telling someone, 'I'm sorry.' "

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