On the eve of the Jewish High Holy Days, worshippers nationwide are putting a new spin on the idea of "brown bagging it."
Rabbis around the country will be handing out empty shopping bags and asking congregants to return them next week filled with food donations for the needy.
"One of the messages of the High Holy Days is that God is not satisfied with ritual observances alone," said Rabbi Lynne Landsberg of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. "What God asks us is to go outside ourselves and to help those around us."
The Jewish High Holy Days begin tonight at sunset with the Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Traditionally, Rosh Hashana is the start of the "Ten Days of Penitence," a time when Jews reflect on their conduct of the past year and God, too, examines their intentions and deeds. The holy days end with the observance of Yom Kippur, the day on which Jews atone for their sins and seek forgiveness.
The Religious Action Center, in a letter to the nation's 830 Reform congregations earlier this summer, suggested synagogues make use of prophetic, social justice themes to encourage congregants to take action against hunger during the High Holy Day season.
Reform Jews believe in following the prophetic spirit of their religion rather than adhering to 613 biblical laws. The program of the Religious Action Center is aimed at Reform congregations, but many Conservative and Orthodox Jews also collect food and funds for the hungry.
According to Rabbi Landsberg, more than 32 million Americans -- or 13 percent of the population -- live below the poverty line. Ten to 15 million children are in danger of malnutrition.
The four Reform congregations in Baltimore have all held food drives before this year and will continue to solicit food and funds during the High Holy Days. Temple Emanuel has a box for food donations year-round; Har Sinai Congregation continually reminds congregants to help feed the needy. Temple Oheb Shalom had held fund drives to support the Maryland Food Committee, and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation has collected contributions for the Maryland Food Bank.
"This year we will be inviting people to bring a bag of food to the synagogue," said Rabbi Don Berlin of Temple Oheb Shalom. "On Rosh Hashana we ask the question; on Yom Kippur we get the answer.
"This is a time when we try to set things in balance. We are aware of the inequities in life, and we can't
think of a better time to address them. . . ."
At Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, 800 shopping bags have been donated by a local supermarket. These bags will be given to worshippers when they leave the sanctuary on Rosh Hashana. Rabbi Jack Luxemburg said he will ask congregants to fill the bags with the equivalent of the meals they forgo on Yom Kippur.
Jews traditionally fast for 24 hours on Yom Kippur.
"We will try to expand the focus of the fast from personal self-denial to an act of sharing," Rabbi Luxemburg explained. "We want our fast to lead to action which is morally and spiritually relevant."
For more information on related programs, call these numbers: Har Sinai Congregation 764-2882; Temple Beth Ami (Rockville) (301) 340-6818; Temple Oheb Shalom Congregation 358-0105; and Temple Emanuel 922-3642.