Syrian crisis casts shadow over Jewish holidays

As Rosh Hashana begins, local rabbis consider how to address simmering tensions around Israel

  • “I don’t need a war to remind me to speak about Israel,” says Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of the Beth Tfiloh Congregation. “Israel is always relevant.”
“I don’t need a war to remind me to speak about Israel,”… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
September 04, 2013|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

According to Jewish tradition, those who atone over the High Holidays for the sins of the past year will be granted peace, prosperity and life.

As thousands of area Jews prepare to begin the solemn season Wednesday night amid high tensions in the Middle East, local rabbis say they've been praying that God might bestow similar good fortune on Israel.

The topic of the Jewish homeland has long been an integral part of the religious observations for Rosh Hashana, which starts at sundown Wednesday, to Yom Kippur on Sept. 13.

But concerns about Israel have taken on increased urgency as President Barack Obama lobbies Congress to support a military strike against Syria for its suspected use of chemical weapons.

Syria's ally, Iran, has threatened to "rain fire" on the Jewish state in retaliation for such a strike.

In Baltimore, a sense of anxiety has pressed on many congregational leaders as they prepare for 10 days of observances that are supposed to bring spiritual refreshment.

"Israel is a miracle 2,000 years in the making," says Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, spiritual leader of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville. "Yet one generation after 6 million Jews were gassed [during World War II], Jews are having to buy gas masks. I'm concerned."

Israel, a nation of 8 million, is home to 45 percent of the world's Jewish population. Tensions in the Middle East were very much on the minds of the men and women charged with setting the spiritual tone for the High Holidays, otherwise known as the Days of Awe, when more congregants attend services than they do at any other time of the year.

"I'm definitely thinking about how to say the right things to my congregation," says Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah, an Orthodox synagogue in northwest Baltimore County. "Everyone is on edge. Almost everyone has some kind of connection to Israel. Our cantor is from there. Many congregants have children serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. They're all on our mind."

Although conflict between Israel and some of its neighbors is not new, Shapiro says he fears this particular escalation is so fraught with complications that it could be worse than others.

"Things seem to be reaching a head right now. Iran seems to be on the threshold of having what they need to create a nuclear weapon. I do think things feel a little different this time," he says.

Shapiro plans to spend part of his Sabbath sermon on Saturday encouraging his congregation "to take prayer and meditation especially seriously" as the new year — the 5774th on the Jewish calendar — dawns.

The High Holidays are a time for ritual, from the blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn, to the recital of ancient liturgy from the mahzor, the prayer book specific to the season.

The shofar blast, heard over the two days of Rosh Hashana, is a symbolic reminder for Jews to engage in reflection this time of year.

It's natural, clerics say, to make the safety of the Jewish state a central topic. The scriptural readings associated with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur focus on themes connected to Israel.

Over the next two days, rabbis around the world will read from Genesis 21 and 22, passages that describe how God rewarded Abraham's faithfulness with the promise of a homeland.

"I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore," the Scripture reads. "Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed."

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the last words spoken in services around the world are "next year in Jerusalem" — a nod to the day, promised by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, when all Jewish people will be able to return from exile to the land they see as central to their covenant with God.

Wohlberg has long devoted at least one High Holiday sermon to whatever happens to be going on in Israel.

"I don't need a war to remind me to speak about Israel," says Wohlberg. "Israel is always relevant."

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills, who says his congregation includes people who avidly support Israel and others who are more critical, sees it as part of his job to remind everyone to consider the full complexity of events in the Middle East before deciding how they feel about any moves Israel makes.

"Things are never as black and white as they appear at first," says Sharff, who addressed the Syrian civil war on Friday night and says he will do so again on Yom Kippur morning.

"During the High Holy Days, we stand in judgment for our actions during the past year, with the idea of trying to right any wrongs and set new pathways for ourselves," he says. "How can you remove yourself from the broader world as you do that?

"People will be thinking about this fluid, dynamic situation and expecting me to say something about it."

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