`You blindly affirm life'

New Year: The Jewish High Holy Days begin amid widespread reflection on the recent terrorist attacks.

September 17, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

For rabbis, the Rosh Hashana sermon is one of the biggest, and many anguish over it for weeks. But the subject of this year's sermon seemed obvious.

The intifada in Israel is nearing its first anniversary and all hearts and minds would be turned toward the Jewish homeland. Many planned to urge attendance of a now-canceled Solidarity With Israel rally in New York, which had been expected to attract more than 100,000.

But that was before planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"The number of sermons that were torn up yesterday, I can't imagine," said Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville the day after the terrorist attacks.

As Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, begins this evening, marking the start of the 10-day High Holy Days, Jews will express solidarity with Israel, but most will focus on trying to make sense out of the death and destruction that struck America.

"We will still talk about Israel. ... Israel will still be the subject for Yom Kippur," said Rabbi Chaim Landau, of Ner Tamid Congregation in Cheswolde, who had worked for more than a month on his sermon, only to set it aside. "However, for Rosh Hashana, we will spend some time on Sept. 11."

Landau said he will talk about a sentiment that has been expressed by many of the survivors of the terrorist attacks, and by the loved ones of the dead: living life to its fullest, taking nothing for granted. "Looking at each day as if it were your last. Not waiting until tomorrow," he said. "Putting all your energy and commitment into each day and enriching it with as many acts of kindness and good deeds and religious obligations as possible."

Rabbi Mark Loeb of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville said the traditional themes of Rosh Hashana provide an opportunity for reflection, not just on the recent tragedy, but the gamut of moral issues.

"Rosh Hashana is about issues of personal responsibility for our own lives. The whole theme is atonement, reflection, thinking about who we are," he said. "That we can't throw away, just because of political events in Israel or America.

"The issue of this terrorist raid has to do with questioning the assumptions on which our civilization rests," he said. "What kind of world do we want to have? What kind of society do we want to believe in? What makes us different from the people who attacked us?"

National Jewish organizations are encouraging their congregations to use the High Holy Days to respond to the tragedy. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations has compiled material for use in times of disaster that it calls "A Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death."

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism issued a new prayer, noting that its members "gather in shock and horror at the events of this week.

"In the coming week, we begin the 10 days of introspection," the prayer continues. "During these days of awe, we pray for your guidance so that we may respond to this tragedy from within the values of our Jewish tradition."

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, urged rabbis to affirm life in the face of death.

"You blindly affirm life as avidly and fanatically as the evil on the other side. That's before you ask why and how," he said. "You affirm life, you reach out and commit to people, you embrace community, you do not lose your balance, and you do teshuva [acts of repentance]."

For Jews, the experience of terrorism, even genocide, is part of their history. In that context, the response of many to Tuesday's attack has been not just horror or anger, but a deeply felt empathy.

"There is some kind of connection in thinking of what Israel has been going through in the form of suicide bombers killing individuals and blowing up buildings that now has taken hold in America," Landau said. "What had been something distant and unimaginable has taken on a meaning of such tragedy."

Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation said the response in the Jewish community to Tuesday's attacks felt very similar to its response to the recent mass bombings in Israel. "The events feel very similar, and I think we experience them in very similar ways," he said.

And there are hopes that such feelings of empathy and solidarity will strengthen ties between the two countries.

"There is a bond that has existed since Israel was created in 1948 that has largely stayed real tight over the years," said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "Unfortunately, the blood that's been spilled in both countries recently has drawn us even tighter. ... For both countries, the feeling is they're both under the gun because they've upheld universal moral principles and have been doing what is right."

That bond between Israel and the United States is made tangible in an 8-foot-tall, 200-foot-long Rosh Hashana card the Jewish community here recently sent to Jerusalem. It was the idea of Baltimore resident Tobey Herzog, who wanted to show solidarity, particularly with the children of Israel.

Earlier this year, she began soliciting cards, and with the help of some national Jewish organizations, collected more than 50,000, which were assembled into what they hoped would be the world's largest Rosh Hashana card in honor of the Year 5762 in the Jewish calendar.

"The idea," said Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf, who helped organize the project, "was to send a message from Jewish kids of the world to Israel: `We can't tell you not to be scared, but we're thinking of you and we wish you a sweet and happy new year.'

"This last year hasn't been so sweet," he said. "We hope the next year will be."

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