By Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein
This coming Sunday night and Monday day, our Jewish community will gather in worship spaces throughout Western New York. We will be there with our family and friends, our fellow community members, and the stranger amongst us. For some of us this will be the first time we have arrived in this particular space, for others this will be an experience we have gone through year after year for as long as we can remember. Yom Kippur is not only our most important Jewish holiday, filled with prayers and traditions we have kept for generations, but it is a day of gathering that sets the tone for the Jewish year ahead.
For our religious and non-religious neighbors alike, this activity must feel strange and foreign. What is this holiday that we can barely pronounce (Is it Yam Keeper or Yome Kiper?)? Why is it always moving around the calendar? And, why does it have to get in the way of our school openings and early Fall programming?
This perceived insensitivity by our neighbors can be incredibly frustrating to us. Why do we have to defend our holidays year after year after year? Why do we have to explain to soccer coaches and college professors why we need to take off? Why can’t they “hear” us?
Our Torah portion this Shabbat, Ha’azinu, begins with this sense of exasperation – “Give ear (Ha’azinu), O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!” (Deuteronomy 32:1). Like a teacher, Moses wants to ensure he has the full attention of the Israelite community before sharing his final poem. Chizkuni, a 13th Century French rabbi, notices the word used for hearing (Ha’azinu) is different from the normal word for hearing (Shema). Ha’azinu comes from the Hebrew word for ear (Ozen) and implies the speaker is at a great distance from the listener. In this case, Moses is high above the Israelite community, calling down to them all the way from the heavens.
Perhaps, this is a good way of thinking about how we must address our extended Western New York Community. We need to give extra reminders, be patient, and above all, not get frustrated. To that end, our Jewish Communal Relations Council, on whom I serve as the Rabbinic advisor, has prepared a 6-year calendar to hand out in our various school systems or places of work. Take advantage of this wonderful resource as a way of feeling heard.
I also want to take time to applaud two young upstanders – Madelyn Goldberg and Gavin Weinstein – who spoke up to move this year’s Homecoming at Nichols from Rosh Hashanah to a different date. Their advocacy made a difference not only for their fellow Jewish students, but demonstrated the value of diversity to the whole student body.
To an easy and meaningful fast and beautiful day of Yom Kippur upcoming. How wonderful all of us can congregate in our various communities representing the best of what Judaism has to offer.
Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein is the spiritual leader at Congregation Shir Shalom in Williamsville, NY.