By Rachel Kurland and Marissa Stern
Every time the calendar page turns to Tishrei, it signals that the time has come to reflect and celebrate change. For many synagogues, that change has come in the form of new rabbinic leadership.
These rabbis of all Jewish denominations have recently joined the Jewish community in the greater Philadelphia area and have a few words to say on behalf of 5776, including reflections on their own experiences thus far and what they hope for their congregants in the New Year.
The Goldberg Variations
Preparing for the holidays — specifically, the “writing and thinking” components of her sermons — is Rabbi Elisa Goldberg’s favorite part.
Goldberg, who became interim rabbi for the West Philadelphia synagogue Kol Tzedek on Aug. 1, long ago began writing her sermons for her holiday service, with themes including the power of storytelling and the Torah as a sacred story and “how it intersects with our culture.”
“I’m hoping people come away feeling renewed spiritually and moved, and with deeper commitments in their lives,” she said.
“I feel like this is where I get to do my richest work,” she added. “I plan it out and script it out, so in the moment, I can be as present as possible.”
She is looking forward to sharing her first High Holidays as rabbi with the Kol Tzedek community, which she said is special and replete with ruach, or spirit.
She has been thinking about the themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and how they help us understand what the year is about.
Elul, the month of the Hebrew calendar leading up to the high Holidays, has a significant meaning behind it related to the New Year, she said. The Hebrew letters spelling Elul, she explained, are an acronym for a phrase that translates to “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.”
According to Goldberg, it all ties in to change and reflection, which are key motifs of the month, as self-reflection and repentance come into play during Yom Kippur.
“We really start this process of change in a place of love, and I think Rosh Hashanah is a part of that.”
Everything’s Coming up Rosen
Barely seven weeks into her tenure, Rabbi Ariella Rosen is enjoying her new position at Adath Israel in Merion Station — and getting used to the logistics of how things work.
During this time of year, Rosen said she likes to read through some of her favorite books on the subject of the New Year, like Alan Lew’s This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, reflecting on Lew’s rabbinical journey and comparing it to her own.
She graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in May and joined the congregation shortly after, so naturally, she has had been reflecting on her transition from being a student to settling into a new home and marching into the New Year strong.
“A lot of what I end up teaching and speaking about grows out of what I’ve been thinking about for myself,” she said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about not having any ‘shoulds’ or ‘supposed to’s.’ Rather, we should think about who we are and what our needs are, separate from the expectations of others or society.”
Rosen said she is looking forward to co-leading a family service during Rosh Hashanah, which incorporates a story through the journey of activities and discussions. But most of all, she’s excited to start the year with her new congregants.
“There’s something nice about coming in new with the New Year coming as well.”
A Square Deal for the New Year
Rabbi Abe Friedman, who just marked his one-month anniversary at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City, is preparing for his first High Holidays with the synagogue, which does things a little bit differently — and a little more publicly.
Erev Rosh Hashanah services will be held in Rittenhouse Square, as they has been for the past two years, where anyone is welcome to join in.
This is a way to “plant ourselves as part of the fabric of the community,” Friedman said — and to bring Judaism right to people’s footsteps.
“What I love about Rosh Hashanah in Rittenhouse Square is that Jewish life at BZBI is part of the life of Judaism in Center City Philadelphia,” he added. “Just as people have their restaurants and yoga studios and offices, and people are moving through that square all day long, living their lives, then Rosh Hashanah belongs there — where people are living.”
For Friedman, Rosh Hashanah is a two-way street. He said the work and reflection that he is asking his congregation and colleagues to do during the holiday, such as self-introspection, has to also be something he would do himself.
“I can only expect my community to be engaged in this work if I am also going to be engaged with it,” he explained.
Rosh Hashanah is often thought of as a blank slate, a chance for a clean, fresh start for a new year. This is true, Friedman said, but not completely — it’s a “selective” chance to start fresh.
“I can choose to approach things in a new way, but I can also choose to keep the things that have been blessings and have been helpful in my life,” he said. “It’s not exactly a blank slate because I get to choose the things I take with me into the new year.”
The new year also brings new changes as far as the clergy team for BZBI. This is the first year Friedman is working together with Cantor Sharon Grainer, Rabbi Yosef Goldman and Rabbi Emeritus Ira Stone.
“My hope is that we can bring everyone else in the community into that spirit of newness, that this can be a year of excitement and innovation and growth for everyone at BZBI, whether you just joined this week or are a third- or fourth-generation member of the synagogue,” he said.
“We’re coming — as a clergy — very much from a place of innovation and growth and things feel new for us, and my hope is that this will be a year as a whole for BZBI to feel and benefit from that spirit of innovation.”
The Business of Self-Reflection and Improvement
Rabbi Yehoshua Yeamans said it has been a bit tough to adjust to his move to Philadelphia, what with so many sermons to share and so little time to prepare, but he’s looking forward to doing it for the first time as a senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel-Ohev Zedek in Northeast Philadelphia.
Yeamans, who started at the congregation on Aug. 15, emphasized that it can be difficult to take the time to think about ourselves and our purpose, but that the High Holidays are the perfect time to do so.
He said we live in a world that is moving so fast that people get easily distracted. Now is the time to reflect on our purpose in life, our long-term goals and our actions in line with those goals. The rabbi, who also has an MBA, pointed out that companies frequently rehash their business models in the same fashion, so why wouldn’t we do the same for ourselves?
“I hope and pray that God gives all of us the mental clarity to ask those questions; this is the time to do it,” he said.
The Future Perfect
For the other rabbis profiled here, Rabbi Beth Kalisch, who said she has started to settle into her home away from home at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, is an example of what they have to look forward to after their freshman year.
This will be her third High Holidays with the congregation. She spent the first year there as an interim rabbi, and will now experience her second High Holidays with the congregation as an official clergywoman.
“I feel right at home at Beth David,” she said.
She’s looking forward to standing on the bimah and looking out into the crowd to see familiar faces. She said she’s been able to recognize more people and stories during her time there, through both joyous occasions and difficult moments, which makes this time of year so much more meaningful to her.
The High Holidays can be uncomfortable and/or challenging for some Jews, but Kalisch said it is a beautiful message and an opportunity to turn a new page. The past is not forgotten, but we can earn a clean slate and start the year fresh, which is something the rest of society doesn’t always allow us to do.
“We’re not always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, but that’s the message of Rosh Hashanah,” she said.
Every year has its ups and downs, but Kalisch advised people to try new things and open new doors for themselves for the upcoming year, all while “making Judaism your own.”
“The High Holidays always inspire me to have new faith in how strong the Jewish community is and can be.”
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