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Snapshots from Yom Kippur


I’m still high from Yom Kippur. Despite the fasting and the solemnity and the as-predicted troubling meditation on my own mortality, I’m a little giggly. Tender and delighted. Slightly off-kilter. Things are not quite like they were before.

This year, Bruce (the beloved spouse) & I celebrated Yom Kippur away from home, at the Jewish Renewal hub Elat Chayyim in western Connecticut. Our guides for the Shabbat of Shabbats were (in alphabetical order) Rabbis Phyllis Berman, Arthur Waskow, Shawn Zevit, and soon-to-be-ordained-rabbi Simcha Zevit — innovators and prophets all.

So, following the example of The Velveteen Rabbi, a sister blogger of whom I am quite fond, I offer 10 cherished moments from this spiritual adventure.

1.  Driving from Central Connecticut State University (where Bruce gave a mathematical talk) to Elat Chayyim. New England in late summer has a bittersweet aura: the trees are tipped with orange & red and the air is crisper than here in southern Indiana. Summer’s abundance is dissipating just as the year itself is vanishing.

2. Changing from my civilian clothes into Yom Kippur whites.  I felt just a little angelic.

3. When we, the participants, began chanting Kol Nidre. The first time this prayer is sung belongs to the prayer leader. It always gives me shivers, but the first – or second – repetition is the signal that the prayer is mine.  That blows my existential mind.

4. We filled out 4 “sin” cards – one each for a way we had missed the mark in relation to ourselves, those closest to us, the wider world, and the Earth. These were read out during the 10+ hours of services, 90% (my estimate) of the time by someone other than the original author. There were many gasps of recognition, despite all the ways in which the details of our individual stories differ.

5. Reb Phyllis’ explanation of why folks might choose to say the blessings before and after the Torah in a mix of masculine and feminine. I’ve watched her do this many times over the years, and always with patience. The willingness to picture God as transcending gender remains one of the last frontiers.

6. Reb Shawn’s chanted the Haftarah from the Book of Isaiah. You know this script – Isaiah chastises the people on Yom Kippur. God isn’t interested, it turns out, in their sackcloth & ashes marking of the holy day. God wants them to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless.  Just like the prophet of old, Reb Arthur twice interrupted the reading to call us to account. One out of every 7 Americans now lives in poverty. The U.S. government is dropping torture cases because of “state secrets.” It was shocking and thrilling.

7. Reb. Simcha led us in a lovely Hineni (Here I am) chant, while Reb Shawn weaved his way through and around us, intoning the traditional plea with God to accept him as the prayer messenger even in the face of his unworthiness.

8. Havdalah on Saturday evening as the sun set. I had my arms around a young man, a total stranger, in the big swaying circle. We looked at each other, eye to eye, and in that moment I knew he would make someone a wonderful life-partner. At the break-the-fast dinner, I told him so. Both of us were amazed by the words that came out of my mouth.

9. Reb Phyllis lit all of our colored cards on fire with the Havdalah candle. The ash that was left would have fit into a large coffee mug. I was taken with the proportions.

10. The closing session on Sunday morning when we sang a kind of midrash (commentary) on the priestly blessing to each other, over and over again in a circle, switching partners with each iteration.

May the beauty of God rest upon you.
May God’s peace abide in you.
May God’s blessings illuminate your heart.
Now and forever more.
7 Comments leave one →
  1. 09/20/2010 9:58 pm

    Thank you for this review of an amazing weekend. I went straight from there to the next thing and the next and the next and didn’t take much time to think and process -but you hit so many of the high points for me (and others that I hadn’t thought so much about) that I know I’ll want to come back and reread this again.

    Other moments I loved: when during the reading of Jonah, Rabbi Shawn kept coming across things he’d never noticed before. The instruction to make a point of connecting to people who seemed offputting or not “my type” and how rewarding it was to do so and overcome my internal barriers. The connection I felt, all weekend, to my father, who I knew was davenning somewhere, a thousand miles away, and my grandparents who are long dead but davenned the same prayers (in very different ways) decades ago.

    And moments of struggle and dissatisfaction: my anxiety all morning about how hungry I was and whether I would fast through the day or not, and my decision about noon to eat lunch, my loneliness knowing I was one of only two people doing so, and then sadness when I returned to find everyone lying on the ground outside and to know I’d missed something special and important. My despair, sitting in my car, eating a snack I’d brought (just in case!) and contemplating leaving.

    And then my feelings of pleasure and reconnection during the evening service (but some discomfort knowing my feeling of well-being was due to food, and everyone else was suffering)…

    My high points have a lot less to do with the rituals and prayers, maybe because I’m still just learning what they all mean. (Despite having attended high holy days services almost every year for 45 years!)

    Well, I could say more but I won’t hijack your comments section any more than I already have! But thank you for htis opportunity to write something about this incredible experience.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      09/21/2010 7:04 am

      Jenny: And I also remember when you talked about starting a rural bus service for low-income residents in the area – how amazed I was (and am) that someone would take that on. I’m glad you didn’t leave. Keep on keeping on!

  2. 09/21/2010 7:24 am

    Oh, I’m so glad you had such a good Yom Kippur! And I’m just the tiniest bit envious; I’ve spent several of the last Yom Kippurim at Elat Chayyim (the years when I’ve had a HHD pulpit, I’ve worked, with joy, but the years when I haven’t had a pulpit I’ve been there) and it is my favorite way to spend the holiday. I was blessed to be there last year with Reb Shawn and with Simcha — who will be ordained a rabbi alongside me in January, by the way! — and it was such a sweet journey. Thanks for giving me these glimpses into your experience.

  3. 09/24/2010 1:21 pm

    What an amazing Yom Kippur! I’m glad you had the time to process the experience, and doubly glad that you took the time to share it with us.

    May all of us have the opportunity to have such meaningful worship experiences.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      09/24/2010 3:29 pm

      I know! Amazing. Allow me to encourage everyone to try out HHD at Elat Chayyim one year – or for that matter, any of their programs, services, and celebrations. It will knock your socks off.

  4. Sarah Rubin permalink
    09/27/2010 4:35 pm

    Thanks for this. I’m a little late in reading, but really happy to see it!
    I love the interpretive translation of the Birkat Cohanim. Do you happen to know who/where it comes from? Is this Phyllis’s? I’m planning to use it, and want to attribute it (at least in my notes) correctly….

    Blessings as this new year settles in!

    • sue swartz permalink*
      09/27/2010 7:15 pm

      It’s been done at Elat Chayyim for years. Not sure where it comes from, to be honest.

      And blessings to you and yours as well.

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