By Cheri Weiss
What are your feelings about the High Holidays? Do you look forward to them as a time to reflect on the past and coming years? Is it a time to gather with friends and family and celebrate being Jewish or just being together? Or do you look at these days as more of an obligation or even a chore, perhaps a relic of a past that was more important to your parents or even grandparents, but has no significant relevance to your own life? Do the chanted prayers inspire you, or are they so foreign to you (particularly if they are primarily in Hebrew) that they are just something you tolerate?
At various points in my life, I have sat on either side of that seesaw. There were years when I attended High Holidays services without having any connection to that particular synagogue and I felt a near total disconnect to what was going on around me. I knew at best a handful of people, and despite understanding the Hebrew words (thanks to a Hebrew School education and six years of living in Israel), I felt no connection to the proceedings or the people. I was there for no other reason than that’s what Jews did on the High Holidays.
When my daughter was approaching school age, her dad and I made the conscious decision to find a synagogue that would nurture her Jewish identity. As parents, we both “felt” Jewish, but we knew that would not be enough to help her understand what that meant. As neither of us had actually ever belonged to a synagogue, this was a new experience for us. What we found was more than just a place to attend services and introduce our daughter to Jewish life and learning; we found a community. I began working there as a Cantorial soloist, and we began participating in the life of the synagogue. Services took on a richer meaning. My life took on a richer meaning.
Flashing forward quite a few years, I am now the Cantorial Intern at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla. I am also the High Holidays Cantor at Temple Emanu-El in Providence (R.I) and a third year Cantorial student at the Academy of Jewish Religion in Los Angeles. I attend classes one day per week, often leaving home before dawn and returning late at night. This past year, I fulfilled one of the requirements of AJR by taking a year of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). This is essentially the study of chaplaincy. Each student is required to have a clinical site; Beth El was mine. Most of my classmates were students in the Chaplaincy program and working in such sites as hospitals and shelters. To be honest, at first I felt completely out of my depth. My background is as a singer, a leader of prayer, and a businesswoman. (I’ve been a Realtor for 15 years and the Broker/Owner of my own firm for seven.) To be the person others turn to in times of need was a terrifying prospect. How would I know what to say? What if I said the wrong thing? Add to that my lifelong discomfort with death, illness, mental incapacity and trauma; and surely I was going to fail. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about others in need; I just felt that this was beyond anything I could do properly. I could not have been more outside my comfort zone.
While I felt overwhelmed and not at all up to the task of chaplaincy, an amazing thing began to happen: I began to really listen to people. I visited congregants in hospitals and nursing homes. I also talked to people who were experiencing serious difficulties in their lives. And it didn’t stop there. I discovered that my CPE hat was always on. Once during a Realtor caravan tour of homes, I found myself alone with an agent who had lost a parent a few years earlier to Alzheimer’s Disease. As I heard him speak, I realized that he was still grieving. So instead of hurrying on to the next house, I stopped and listened to this person who needed me at that moment. I made only occasional comments, but what I did say seemed to comfort him.
According to the Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), the world stands on three central principles: Torah (study of Jewish texts), Avodah (worship/ritual/service to G-d), and G’milut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness). There are many ways we can apply these core Jewish values in our lives. I have found that it is easier and more meaningful to incorporate these values into my life within the context of a Jewish community. In a community, people have a stronger, more personal interest in the well-being of its members. We celebrate our joyful occasions and provide comfort and support to one another in times of grief or distress. Through our Rabbis, we learn how to apply the teachings of the Torah to our daily lives. Through prayer and ritual, we can infuse our lives with spirituality and deeper meaning.
I understand that taking the first step toward being part of a Jewish community may be challenging and even overwhelming for many people. But I urge you to go outside your comfort zone. It may mean attending a Friday night or Saturday morning service. Talk to the Rabbi, Cantor or other members about getting involved in congregational activities. Take one of many classes offered by one of the many local synagogues on Jewish ethics, prayer services, Hebrew language, or join a synagogue choir. (The choir I lead at Beth El meets twice a month on Wednesday evenings from October to June. You need not be a Beth El member to join, and no previous choral experience is necessary.) If you never had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, some synagogues offer a two-year Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah class. Volunteer your services for one of the many Mitzvah (community service) projects led by various synagogues or Jewish Family Service.
I have traveled this road many times in my life. I know how it feels to be on the outside looking in. Yet there is a completeness to giving and receiving within a nurturing congregation or other Jewish communal organization. As a Cantor, I hope to use my musical voice to inspire people to follow their own path to Judaism and to its core values. By taking a step outside my comfort zone to discover my pastoral voice, I discovered a joy and fulfillment that goes beyond what I had ever thought was possible. I hope that the High Holidays are just a first step for you in finding your own path within the Jewish community. Shana Tovah.
Cheri Weiss currently serves as the Cantorial Intern at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla and High Holidays Cantor at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, R.I. She is studying for the Cantorate at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles. She is also the Broker/Owner of Top Coast Properties in La Jolla and holds the SRES (Seniors Real Estate Specialist) designation from the National Association of Realtors.