Rabbis Forgo Annual High Holy Days Call with President

The High Holy Days are an opportunity for reflection and introspection. As the leaders of major denominations in American Jewish life, we have been deeply engaged in both, considering the events of the Jewish year that is ending and preparing spiritually for the year to come.

Press Release from the Religious Action Center

In so doing, we have thoughtfully and prayerfully considered whether to continue the practice in recent years of playing key roles in organizing a conference call for the President of the United States to bring High Holiday greetings to American rabbis. We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year.

The President’s words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia. Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community. They must be roundly condemned at all levels.

The High Holy Days are a season of t’shuva for us all, an opportunity for each of us to examine our own words and deeds through the lens of America’s ongoing struggle with racism. Our tradition teaches us that humanity is fallible yet also capable of change. We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred. We pray that those who traffic in anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia will see that there is no place for such pernicious philosophies in a civilized society. And we pray that 5778 will be a year of peace for all.

Central Conference of American Rabbis
The Rabbinical Assembly
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Attending Yom Kippur Services Online


Rabbi Milgram practices blowing the shofar as Kabbalah4all.com‘s leader David Aharon Curtis prepares to begin his service.

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, my ankle was too swollen and painful to even hop over to the car to attend  the services. That created a rare rabbinic opportunity for me: attending free High Holiday services on-line.

I did not know what to expect at all, as I had only accidentally tripped over the possibility, when researching a quote online earlier in that week. Here is how it works, at least with Kabbalah4all.com, and the golden-voiced, inclusive service leader, composer of Jewish music, David Aharon Curtis.

Everything on the website, including Shabbat and festival services year-round, is for free. I registered as a member, and downloaded the evening section of the High Holiday Prayerbook, (machzor). Before sundown, I logged in for the Rosh Hashanah evening service.

More after the jump.
What were the services like? The liberal, gender-inclusive services were led by Curtis from what looked like inside of his home, in front of a sweet setup of holiday candles, a menorah, pomegranate and shofar.

It turns out that David Aharon Curtis has been streaming services for eight years already — what a boon to those in hospice or otherwise homebound. Some, it seemed, even gathered in small minyanim (groups of 10 or so) in remote areas without synagogues, tuned in and were able to have a service in this way.

The prayer books, provided as PDF downloads are interlinear: The transliterations, English and Hebrew, are not opposite each other, but rather are in the learner-friendly line-by-line approach. There are also lovely spiritual kavvanot, contemplative explanations, written in the text before each prayer.

The leader rarely showed his face, so one could mostly focus on praying along with the service leader’s lovely voice. A few nature slides and pictures of a Torah or shofar dominated the screen.

In the video to the left you can see an example of the leader’s approach to the Shema, a central prayer in most Jewish services. It’s easy to follow along in the English and transliteration, the leader chants in the Hebrew and occasional Aramaic of the Kaddish, using mostly traditional and a few contemporary melodies. I recognized a few melodies as attributable to Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory. My husband, raised in South Africa, was delighted at the relative absence of talk and simple presence of authentic prayer.

As David Aharon Curtis pointed out in his brief talk at the end of the service, while one can have a sense of connection and community in an on-line service, it’s difficult to meet and mingle afterward. The approach does seems to be catching on, a wide variety of free live-streaming High Holiday service options come up in a key word search, among them the radio broadcasts from New York’s Temple Emanuel and Central Synagogue.

Nashuva, a post-denominational California community that meshes spirituality with social action, is live-streaming their Kol Nidre service, to led by Rabbi Naomi Levy at 9:45 pm tonight. A well-known author and actist, Rabbi Levy is author of several books including Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration. In addition, there are a growing number of synagogues and havurot providing Shabbat and holiday services on-line to members in good standing; these typically require a password for viewing.

For those who are housebound, or far from a congregation this Yom Kippur, or at any point in the Jewish year and your Jewish practice permits it, services on-line will be a great help.

Book Review: Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe aims readers toward heightened self-awareness, through both traditional and self-help approaches. She does this in order to advance our capacity for teshuva — correction of our foibles and realignment of relationships as the pathway to increased happiness.

Similarly to the approach of Rabbi Abraham Twersky, the talented addictions counselor, Brown analogizes teshuva to “recovery.” Each chapter is based on a different verse of al cheyt, the prayer where we knock on the door to our hearts in Gestalt-like fashion, in hopes of awakening awareness and heightened authentic teshuva.

More after the jump.
This delightfully portable volume includes a well-written academic introduction to teshuva, translations of traditional teshuva teachings, and Brown’s own midrashic and interpretive work woven, with quotes from contemporary Jewish scholars, along with points excerpted from her reading in the field of psychology. The book is well-worth purchasing for the powerful compilation of traditional texts. Unfortunately, the self-help component is surprisingly unsophisticated, and in some cases seems likely to backfire, as I will explain later in this review.  

The author elects to join the current trend of sweetened, mussar-like awareness raising, by incorporating within the teshuva ten topics of human development: faith, destiny, discipline, humility, compassion, gratitude, anger, joy, honesty and holiness. She uses these categories to help the reader raise  self-awareness of where they may have room to grow in regard to these attributes. This is one of the volume’s strengths.

An example I especially appreciated was her “Day Two” entry, which begins: “For the sin we have committed before you with a confused heart.” While, as Brown explains, Jewish tradition more often connects this verse on the “confused heart” to doubt of some aspect of Jewish practice or Jewish history, she adds a helpful nuance for our consideration:

How can confusion ever be a sin? It is not intentional. Confusion is not an act; it is a condition brought about by the ambiguities of a situation. But we can perpetuate confusion by not seeking clarity soon enough or not at all. And for that we confess…

Dr. Brown also includes translations of excerpts from Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva, R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim, and R. Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook’s Oros HaTeshuvah, for each topic. For example, this piece from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, that ripens powerfully when discussed with a study partner, or in a community (page 143):

Great and sublime is the happiness of repentance. The consuming fire of sin’s pain in itself refines and will result in a superior and radiant purification of character, til the great wealth of repentance to be found in the treasure of life develops and unfolds before him. Humans continue to ascend through repentance, through its bitterness and its pleasantness, through its sorrow and its joy; nothing refines and purifies man, truly uplifting him to the level of man, as does the profound contemplation of repentance, “in the place were the penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand.” (Berakhot 34a)


Teshuva is a foundational mitzvah: a condition of realignment within our behaviors and relationships, in which Jews almost perpetually dwell. “Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,” 1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb.

Brown also cites teachings of leading scholars such as Jonathan Sachs, Adin Steinsaltz, Jonathan Levenson and Joseph Telushkin. Be sure to have a TaNaKh (Jewish translation of the full Jewish canon) at hand, because the narrative sections assume familiarity with the High Holiday season traditions and sacred stories. It would also be helpful if the publishers — OU Press and Maggid Books, a subdivision of Koren Publishers — could put the original, untranslated text segments online, to facilitate study by those of us with sufficient language skills. Hebrew transcends what translations can offer.

One section within each chapter is titled “Life Homework.” Here, unfortunately, Dr. Brown seems out of her element. She falls into what I consider to be a common mussar trap, of mistaking raised awareness and the force of one’s willpower as being sufficient to power sustainable change. The tragic ethical scandals accruing to too many revered pious Jewish (and other) business, educational and spiritual community leaders, would seem to substantially defeat this assumption. Brown cites, for justification, authors Roy Baumeister, John Tierney and Kely McGonigal to the effect that they “believe” that “willpower alone is our greatest human strength”.

Dr. Brown’s book and website bios do not clearly indicate in what subject her doctorate was undertaken. Perhaps education, given that she describes herself on the present front page of her website as learning not through professional training and supervised practice, but rather “by reading. I order a mountain of books on a subject, plow through them and try to organize my thoughts in relation to what others think.”

This approach shows distinctly and problematically in the narrative, which offers a more pop psychology, or self-help orientation, than an appreciation of the deep psycho-dynamic work and spiritual development necessary for effective healing within our relationships with ourselves, our family, our community and God.

Dr. Brown’s exercises are simple, decent things like writing gratitude letters to one’s parents, a teacher, etc. Later, when she suggests writing a letter commending an anger management strategy to one of the reader’s presumably adult children, it is hard to imagine this facilitating teshuva or intimacy as much as building resentment and resistance. In the words of Dr. Robert Anthony: “If you want to make an enemy, try to change someone.”

Support for how to directly seek out those with whom one needs to do teshuva, for meaningful dialogue, insight, cultivation of authentic empathy, and the gradual restoration of trust, is largely overlooked in this book. Almost everything happens in one’s head — rather than in the holy space of interpersonal encounter, termed by Martin Buber “the between.” Despite capably writing out traditional teshuva processes in an academic fashion, Brown seems unaware of that the self is co-constructed within relationships, much more than in one’s head, i.e. via projections onto others and thoughts about what they may feel or think, when asking directly is the only way to know.

Given the plural nature of the al cheyt shechatanu liturgy, the long-missing onus, of communities taking responsibility for missing ethical and mitzvah-centered behavioral marks, would also make a welcome addition within Brown’s approach to High Holiday preparation practices. While she stays within traditional Orthodox liturgy (and translations), many contemporary prayer books already add new al cheyts for the sake of things like caring for the environment, fostering better systems of healthcare, environmental preservation, education, etc.

The chosen topics in this volume are very safe. How about some mitzvah-centered risk-taking, in the way of setting communities onto chanting and reflecting upon the “sin of suppressing communal awareness of internal problems?” And “not teaching and supporting healthy boundaries between staff and students?” And “for the sin of not providing a living wage for all of our employees?” etc.

Also unfortunate is that the author does not point readers toward the array of contemporary literature and professions which offer deeper and more effective levels of teshuva and spiritual development, that are barely alluded to in Brown’s effort. To name a few, I would like to see mentioned there books such as “Sacred Therapy,” written through a Jewish lens by psychotherapist Estelle Frankel, or related articles by Rabbi Anne Brener, Mashpi’ah Carola de Vries Robles, Rabbis Abraham Twerski, Rami Shapiro, and Howard Addison and his partner Dr. Barbara Breitman.

A further problem in this first edition is that some might assume that that Brown is accurately describing Torah stories, while she is sometimes actually giving her own, often unusual and interesting, spin. (This process is known as “making midrash.”) It is also sometimes difficult to appreciate why certain texts and topics are sequenced or emphasized. It seems that parts may have been edited out at the publisher level, for the sake of greater volume brevity, with neither the insertion of alternative segue-ways, nor attention to the presentation’s conceptual flow. The absence of an index, as always, is disappointing, as indices are helpful for returning to key points and quotes.

Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe does commence with a worthy introduction to teshuva, where Dr. Brown collates a number of important primary and secondary sources for us in translation. Helpfully, she introduces the multifaceted steps of a full teshuva process, as found in the teachings of the Catalonian rabbi, Jonah ben Abraham Gerondi. He, who had abetted the burning of the works of the renowned Jewish sage, the Rambam (Maimonides), certainly came to deeply appreciate the angst and stages involved in meaningful teshuva. He even prostrated himself on the Rambam’s grave, as a component to his grief of self-awareness and yearning to achieve the joyful fullness of teshuva — in the very manner recommended in the writings of Maimonides himself!

Teshuva is a foundational mitzvah: a condition of realignment within our behaviors and relationships, in which Jews almost perpetually dwell; and this is by intentional ancestral design of our tradition. While we can turn to our sense of God for support in this process, our tradition teaches that errors with humanity can only be corrected directly through contact with each person, upon their grave, and, in the case of theft, with their heirs. God cannot fix our errors for us, save for our sense of our efforts at the fullness of teshuva being “received.”

Uncovering the “Torah” of healthy relationships is a paramount issue in most lives, and Dr. Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe offers helpful frameworks, sources and accessible discussion points for communities, individuals and families desiring self-reflective practices, that may enhance their individual capacity for teshuva.  

Putting the High Back into the High Holidays at P’nai Or

— by Tobie Hoffman

This fall, in Summit Church’s Fellowship Hall, a High Holiday gathering unlike anything you may have ever experienced will unfold again, as P’nai Or – the Mt. Airy Jewish renewal congregation whose name means “Faces of Light” – offers High Holiday services of a different stripe to seekers of all backgrounds.

The High Holidays at P’nai Or are Jewish renewal at its best,” said Rabbi Marcia Prager who has been co-leading these festive gatherings, along with many talented P’nai Or members, for eighteen years. “We blend traditional liturgy with uplifting heart-opening poetic translations so that Hebrew and English prayers flow intertwined with each other. The music is profound – deep, high and sweet in a way that caresses your soul. And of course, everyone is included. There is passionate prayer, quiet meditation, opportunities to reflect and do some pretty deep inner work, and also time to share, to be creative and even make some new friends.”

More after the jump.
P’nai Or High Holidays are a great introduction to the themes of this season in the Jewish year, and to different styles and approaches to these themes that can make them even more powerful and personally relevant. “If you have grown past thinking of God as a judgmental King on a throne, and are ready for some of the more potent imagery that grows out of the Jewish mystical tradition, P’nai Or will be a refreshing change for you too,” said Abby Michaleski who came to P’nai Or after trying many different congregations.  

“I needed a more dynamic, more integrated way of understanding the creative life-force that I experience in the world and in my life. P’nai Or High Holidays takes the traditional liturgy and imagery and makes it soar in a way that is resonant with my experience. Boy was this a wow.”

“I wanted an informal, really friendly environment where I could have a spiritual experience, and also bring my kids” said Sam Steinig and his wife Rodi, who come with their daughters. The P’nai Or Children’s Program runs through the holiday, offering a blend of childcare and High Holiday activities and projects for children. We can bring our kids into the service to be with us, and also let them be with other kids and have educational fun.”

The themes of celebrating life and re-aligning with the Power that promotes goodness are strong currents at these gatherings.  The High Holidays invite us to work together for forgiveness, compassion, and shalom – which means wholeness, fulfillment and perfection, as well as peace. All the songs, all the prayers and all the inner work we do helps us heal our inner hurts and rededicate ourselves to be the best we can be, internally, in our relationships, and in the world.

Would you like to come? We would love to meet you! Because the sustainability of the P’nai Or community is dependent on dues and contributions, there is a suggested donation for attending. However, if this is your first experience with P’nai Or we invite you to make the donation that feels right to you. No one is ever turned away from a P’nai Or gathering for financial reasons.

Erev Rosh Hashana:  
WEDNESDAY evening, Sept. 28,  6 – 7:30 PM.
A short festive gathering: singing, davenen’, candle-lighting and apples & honey.

Rosh Hashana morning services:
THURSDAY morning, Sept. 29,  10 AM – 2 PM !
FRIDAY morning, Sept. 30,  10 AM – 2 PM  

A vegetarian dairy potluck lunch follows the service each day – please bring food to share.

Yom Kippur:
FRIDAY evening, Oct. 7,  6 – 9 PM.
Evening Service.  Kol Nidre – 6:15 Sharp!

SATURDAY Oct. 8,  10 AM – 9 PM.
Day service:  All day and evening including  Havdala  and  N’eila.
A vegetarian/dairy break-fast follows.  Please bring food to share.

Check our website for more info on P’nai Or, our community, our services,  and High Holiday registration. Or email: pnaiorrabbi@aol.com

Summit Church is on Greene and Westview in West Mt. Airy, one block from Lincoln Drive, and one block from Weaver’s Way Co-op. Services are in Fellowship Hall. Come in through the Greene St. Entrance and up the stairs! We look forward to meeting you!