Sephardic Jews begin their preparations for Rosh Hashanah when Elul begins. In addition to the daily blasts of the shofar, they begin waking up early and reciting Selichot, prayers of forgiveness and atonement. They ask the Holy One to remember Her conversation with Moshe after the golden calf, to remember the 13 attributes of mercy, that Gd is gracious, merciful, forgiving of sin, etc., etc.
Ashkenazi Jews also blow the shofar every morning, but they do not begin their Selichot until the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah (most years).
This year, my colleague Rabbi Freedman of Temple Beth Jacob, Stefanie Kostenblatt of Newburgh JCC, and I (Rabbi Philip Weintraub) of Congregation Agudas Israel, wanted to figure out how to inspire more people this time of year. How do we get people excited for Rosh Hashanah, while also considering a public response to the growing hatred and violence in our nation and around the world? How can we speak out against hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic, anti-LGBTQ, anti-American, and even Nazi/KKK propaganda? After some brainstorming, we decided that Selichot was an incredible opportunity, a tremendous gift. It was already a time for repentance, to discuss areas of growth. If we opened that to the community, we could find new ways of talking about race, hope, love and their opposites in this country.
We invited everyone we could think of, but until they started coming in, we did not know what our numbers would look like. Approximately 200 people from across the City of Newburgh and its surrounding municipalities came. We saw Mayor Kennedy, City Councilpeople and Town officials. It was a truly pluralistic event. We had a gospel choir from Ebenezer Baptist Church. And the words from their Senior Pastor, Bruce Davis, Sr. were incredible. He used the Bible to teach an important message of appropriate outrage AND cooperation.
Chaplain Patt Kauffman joined us on the 16th anniversary of her ordination and her reading of the Psalms was truly inspiring.
We heard a message of love and peace from Imam Rashada, of Masjid Al-Ikles in Newburgh.
I think it was probably the first time on our bimah we heard the Muslim Call to Worship AND a song about Jesus. Some might find that theologically challenging, but to me, it is a tremendous blessing. We shared our space with our friends and neighbors. We called out to Gd and created a sacred moment. We did not try to blend our traditions, but to hear from the best of all of them. We learned about one another and saw the beautiful parallels we share.
We heard voices from the Catholic tradition, saw friends in all sorts of elegant clerical garb, and truly reflected on our place in the universe.
While we asked everyone to limit themselves to 6 minutes, I may have used a little more time–but I did try to capture the lessons that each spiritual leader had shared before me.
Rabbi Freedman got us all to think about the Al-Chet, and what we should be asking forgiveness for today. His reminder that we all need to be a bit more “uppity”, that we must not stand by when we hear racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, or any other hurtful -ism brought people to their feet.
I didn’t list everyone here, but it was a beautiful night. Many thanks to Stefanie Kostenblatt and Rabbi Larry Freedman for their organizational abilities, beautiful teachings and cooperation in this beautiful night. As I go into the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days, I am inspired, uplifted and sure that through our cooperation, we can do amazing work. Our country is a very special place, where people can come from all different backgrounds, faiths, and traditions and work together to build community. Hallelujah!
Thank you very much to Caryn Sobel for her beautiful photography.