Life Lessons from Rosh Hashanah Services at Emory

It’s my 5th year leading Reform High Holy Day services at Emory. It’s an honor and something that I really look forward to even as there’s always a small part of me that longs to be “just” a congregant during this sacred season. Here are a few life lessons that I offer as a reflection on the Rosh Hashanah services that have just concluded.

1. Whitney Houston got it right: “Children are our future.” When we “teach them well” then they “will lead the way.”

It’s become an annual tradition to invite Davis Academy students to join me in leading a portion of the service including the Shema and the Shofar Blessings. This year Davis students played an extended role helping with a variety of prayers and readings as well as creating a reading of their own (on the spot). Featuring Davis Academy students helps everyone feel a sense of hope, community, and connection.

2. “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Either by chance or by fate this quote from Susan Sontag was hanging on a poster directly behind me on the bimah at the beautiful Marcus Hillel Center . As a rabbi I’m favorably disposed to the idea that words carry great power. Yet one of the things I most enjoy about leading services at Emory is that I don’t give a single sermon. Instead, I demand that Emory students give the sermons. My silence elicits their words and their words (invariably) elicit deep reflection for everyone in the congregation. One of the great blessings of my rabbinate is getting to hear the wisdom of Emory students that is vocalized as a result of my silence.

3. Building kehillah is hard. The Davis Academy is a very vibrant kehillah, a true community. On my annual pilgrimage to Emory for the High Holy Days I face a challenge that I don’t face in my role at Davis– the challenge of building kehillah. At Davis, kehillah is evident in all that we do. Kehillah can’t be suppressed and the power of kehillah sustains and strengthens us. During the High Holy Days at Emory we have to build kehillah. We have undergrads, grad students, professors, Davis families, community members, out of town visitors and more. On an annual basis only about 50% of the congregation are “repeat offenders.” Everyone else is new– freshman, new professors, folks who have relocated to Atlanta, and so on. Our task over the course of the High Holy Days is to build a sense of kehillah. It isn’t easy. The amazing staff of Hillels of Georgia does a great job of laying the foundation for this work but it’s still a challenge at the High Holy Days.

4. The fate of Judaism is directly tied to Judaism’s relevance to modern life. If Judaism doesn’t speak to the challenges we face as individuals, as a community, and as the human race in modern times then Judaism should probably just go away. If Judaism can’t help us navigate the horrors of Syria, the complexities of genetic coding, the human rights of gay marriage, and other societal and geopolitical issues than Judaism has no place being a part of our public discourse. I’m convinced that Judaism is more relevant than ever and that Jewish tradition, in its multivocality, does speak to these and other issues. But it’s clear to me that if rabbis aren’t able to make this relevance undeniably manifest than we are doing a disservice to our congregants and our tradition. Similarly, it’s the responsibility of every professing Jew to bring Judaism to bear on the issues that define our world.

There’s much more that could be extrapolated from the last 24 hours at Emory, but one of the highlights of Rosh Hashanah is the unique chance it provides for the ever elusive “nap” that comes with parenting a 2 year old.

Shanah Tovah!

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