Pam Sudbury’s childhood memories reflect the traditions important to her Jewish family. Growing up in North Miami Beach, Florida, Sudbury would visit her grandmother’s house on Friday nights before Sabbath and walk alongside her grandfather to the Saturday service.
Sudbury moved to Arlington in 1999, and her son was born there in 2001. When she became a parent, she said, she wanted her son to learn the religion that she grew up in.
Sudbury and her family have been going to Congregation Beth Shalom, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Arlington, for the past 18 years. She is also a part of Arlington’s Jewish Advisory Council. Now, as a mother, Sudbury observes the High Holy Days and other important days in her faith along with her son and their congregation.
“I found my community, and I found a home that, you know, where people love each other and take care of each other and … love being Jewish,” Sudbury said.
What are the High Holy Days?
In Judaism, the High Holy Days are a 10-day period of prayer and atonement that begins with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and ends with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, according to Religion Link. During this period of observance, people of Jewish faith attend synagogue, recite ancient prayers and fast during certain times of the day.
“It is a time where we, metaphorically — and many people believe, literally — inscribe our names in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashana and seal them on Yom Kippur,” said Rabbi Andrew Bloom from Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Fort Worth. “So it keeps us thinking about how we can repent for any of the sins which we have done in the past and change our ways for the future.”
During the secular new year in the U.S., Americans might celebrate by drinking champagne, making resolutions and watching the ball drop. For Rosh Hashana, “it’s a very different feeling,” said Cantor Elisa Abrams Cohn, from Congregation Beth Shalom. She is also a member of the Jewish Advisory Council in Arlington.
“The Jewish new year is this really beautifully serious matter,” she said. “We basically take account of our lives. We recall the moments when we perhaps missed the mark, and we seek forgiveness. We seek a return to our best selves, to God and to the things that really matter.”
Abrams Cohn said she prefers to call them “High Holy Days” instead of “High Holidays,” because the latter can have a more lighthearted connotation.
“We’re doing the work to apologize for what we’ve done wrong and then we can do better. So, we’re solving the fact that we know we can do better, and God is giving us this opportunity to do better,” Abrams Cohn said.
The decision to use the term “High Holy Days” or “High Holidays” varies from one Jewish person to another, said Ariel Feldman, Rosalyn and Manny Rosenthal professor of Jewish studies and director of the Jewish studies program at Texas Christian University
“When you work in a field such as Jewish studies, which encompasses 3,000 more years of history and development, I think no one knows everything,” Feldman said. “If you think about what the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible has to say, the term ‘High Holidays’ doesn’t appear there. But it does talk about several festivals, which would require particularly the male Israelites to go to Jerusalem, for celebration.”
Feldman is referring to a Jewish festival called Sukkot, which is considered one of the most important Jewish holidays, according to Religion Link, and occurs in September or October.
Traditions associated with the Holy Days
Members of the Jewish faith observe a number of traditions during the 10-day period, including:
- Eating apples dipped in honey to have a sweet new year.
- Wearing white on Yom Kippur, which “symbolizes purity — purity of the soul, purity of the body and purity of action,” said Bloom.
- Eating pomegranates on Rosh Hashana because it’s believed that the fruit has 613 seeds, “connecting it to the 613 commandments of the Torah,” according to The Jewish Museum in New York City.
Sense of community
Rachel Gollay is a member of Makom Shelanu, a Jewish congregation in Fort Worth that advocates for social justice. She also is the Southwest community mobilization manager for Keshet, a national grassroots organization that advocates for LBGTQ equality and Jewish life.
Gollay said that she started “reaching back into Jewish text and traditions” when her grandmother started reaching the end of her life. Observing the High Holy Days helps Gollay connect with her heritage.
“It sort of helped me navigate that major life change in a way that felt grounding. Feeling that connection of ancestors and past traditions,” Gollay said, “I find a lot of fulfillment in meaning and sort of looking back at those traditions and then also looking at how we make them relevant for today and for the future.”
Bloom said that he sees how his congregation comes together during the High Holy Days.
“You have more people in the synagogue, more people in the pews, more people praying to the community, celebrating the new year and also celebrating the hope of what we will accomplish together in the coming year,” Bloom said.
On Sept. 22, Bloom said, he gave a sermon about the importance of being present and in the moment and how that relates to the High Holy Days and Jewish faith.
“Today matters. Rosh Hashana matters. Yom Kippur matters,” Bloom said, “But it matters even more when we realize that the prayers we are saying now, the people we are with now and the way we engage ourselves is an opportunity that will not return. That is what is so important about the High Holy Days.”
Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @marissaygreene.
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