Crafting the Sacred Horn

[slideshow id=”Sacred Horn”]

The sound of the shofar is unmistakable — its loud, triumphant blasts can be heard throughout Rosh Hashanah services and during Yom Kippur when the fast is over. But that hollow, smooth, shimmering, resonant horn heard in synagogue took meticulous handiwork to transform from the crude horn of an animal to a majestic shofar.

“They’re magical instruments,” said Maurice Kamins, a San Francisco psychotherapist who may be one of the only hobbyist shofar makers in the United States who isn’t a rabbi. “… It’s the oldest continuously used instrument we know about.”

While a shofar could be made in about five minutes, it takes some dedicated craftsmanship and practice to make it well.

The first step in making anything is obvious: acquiring the materials. The horn must be from a kosher animal, although the animal doesn’t necessarily need to be slaughtered in a kosher manner. To be a shofar, the horn must be one that grows hollow. While rams’ and goats’ horns are commonly used, shofars can be made out of the horns from kudus, ant-elopes native to Africa with long, curvy horns, ibex, wild goats with long, ridged horns, gazelles, water bucks and black bucks. Deer and bulls’ horns are off limits since they don’t grow hollow, and the latter would remind us of a biblical mistake.

“It’s associated with a baby cow that we worshipped as a people at Sinai, a big mistake,” said Rabbi Hillel Baron, director of the Lubavitch Center of Howard County. “We don’t want to remember a big mistake we made.”

Shofars should also not be fashioned in a way that loses sight of its natural form, which hollowing out a horn would violate. In animals that grow naturally hollow horns, bones from the skull plate grow inside of the horns. Baron likens it to having a finger with a nail that surrounds the entire finger.

Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen, director of the Chabad of Owings Mills, said a ram’s horn is preferred because it is reminiscent of Abraham’s sacrifice to God.

Rabbi Baron gets his horns from another rabbi who gets them from a farm in Pennsylvania, the name and precise location of which he does not know. Because the horns aren’t easy to acquire, the rabbi guards his source. Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen (affectionately known as Rabbi K), director of the Chabad of Owings Mills, get his from various farms. Kamins finds his on the Internet and has had luck getting kudu horns from ranches in Texas.

The horns generally come from older animals, which naturally grow longer horns, and are cut off the skull after the animal is dead. Baron said it’s not typical for kosher-slaughtered animals to have such large horns since kosher meat is usually from younger animals. Many of the farm’s meat
customers are from Caribbean and Muslim communities, who prize older animals, Baron said.

If the horns aren’t cleaned out when they arrive, the shofar maker must get the bone and connectivetissue out of the horn. Baron said water with a high concentration of bleach works, Rabbi K said vinegar and acidic substances work, and Kamins said boiling the horns works, too. Sometimes, the insides will fall out if the horn is knocked on something; sometimes you need a vice grip to the insides out. The “most disgusting, but sometimes but most efficient” way, Kamins added, is to get the horn wet, wrap it in a plastic bag and place it in the sun for two to three weeks. The tissue should turn to slime, but he warned that one must cover his nose if using this method.

Soap and water can be used to clean the inside once the bone and tissue are cleaned out. With a hollowed-out horn in hand, the next step is to find where the hollow part meets the solid part. Rabbi K sticks a hanger wire into the wide part of the horn, and makes a mark on the outside of the horn an inch or an inch-and-a-half into the solid part. He then cuts the remainder of the solid part off using a handsaw.

What is perhaps the most important part comes next — drilling the holes for the mouthpiece. The opening at the end should be wide, and the hole should get narrower inside the shofar. To do this, Rabbi K uses a straight drill bit to make the initial hole and then uses a cone-shaped drill bit to widen the mouthpiece.

“Usually a big one, that allows for a larger hole and also has much more thickness to it, so that would be more of a bass shofar — [with a] loud, heavy sound that tends to be easier to blow,” Baron said. “But then if you want sort of a higher note, higher sound, [you make] a smaller hole.”

A grinder or sandpaper can be used to smooth out the mouthpiece. To make the shofar shine, shellac, polyur-ethane can be used.

Kamins said to make a shofar that can make a sound, takes a very short time, but grinding and polishing the shofar can take anywhere from two to five hours.

How can a shofar maker be sure that after all of this work the horn will make a good sound?

“Other than blind, stupid luck, nothing,” Kamins said.

Why go to all the trouble?

There are three reasons we blow the shofar, Rabbi K said. The shofar is
like the sound of a cry, and the Jewish people are crying out to recognize transgressions from the past year and ask God to put us in the Book of Life. The shofar also functions to wake people up to recognize they can and should be better. The third reason is that the shofar is crowning God.

For Kamins, who once considered himself somewhat of an atheist, making 400 to 500 shofars from 19 different animals in the past 20 years has brought him closer to Judaism.

“I get to live in that horn and do everything in my power to carry that sound up and, in that process, bring a thousand people up with me,” he said. “And there’s nothing as magical as that silence when you know everybody is just following that sound.”

Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter —</em>

From The Charts To Your Machzor

Former Beatle Paul McCartney performs “Getting Better” in 1976.  His ex-wife, Linda, is also pictured. (Jim Summaria via Wikimedia Commons)

Former Beatle Paul McCartney performs “Getting Better” in 1976. His ex-wife, Linda, is also pictured.
(Jim Summaria via Wikimedia Commons)

In time for the 2013 High Holiday season, here is a list of the Top 5 popular songs to put you in the mood for introspection, repentance and renewal — and a few just to make you smile:

1. “Who By Fire”
(Leonard Cohen)
The consummate coffeehouse theologian lands in the No. 1 spot on our list, having borrowed the title and concept of this song directly from the emotional centerpiece of the High Holidays liturgy, Unítaneh Tokef. Another song of Cohen’s deserves honorable mention here: “The Story of Isaac,” a post-modern retelling of the famous near sacrifice that highlights the moral ambiguity of Abraham’s choice. The section of Genesis that contains the original story is read as the Rosh Hashanah Torah service.

2. “Man in the Mirror”
(Michael Jackson)
From the time when Top 40 songs were still allowed to have simple moral messages, the King of Pop reminds us that changing the world must always begin with changing oneself. As with the silent confessions of the Yom Kippur musaf, the High Holidays are a time to give our friends and family a break and turn our critical eye to the person looking back at us in the mirror.

3. “Getting Better”
(The Beatles)
A golden oldie about turning things around: “Man, I was mean, but I’m changing my scene and I’m doing the best that I can,” sings Paul. Sometimes we lose faith in our ability to grow out of lifelong patterns of getting hurt and hurting back, but the song insists that change is always possible when we open our hearts and truly listen to our loved ones.

4. “Please Forgive Me”
(Bryan Adams)
This one’s about saying sorry for loving too much rather than too little. After all, don’t many of our conflicts come from holding on too tight? Not to mention the heart-wrenching power of Adams’ voice, which moves the listener like good chazzanut ought to.

5. “Unwritten”
(Natasha Bedingfield)
Here’s one for the millennials. A talented young British singer/songwriter, Bedingfield sings with conviction about the ever-present possibility of a fresh start. Her chorus offers an optimistic counter to the traditional image of the sealing of the book of fate: “Today is where your book begins, the rest is still unwritten.”

And a few more just for fun …

“Oops! … I Did It Again”
(Britney Spears)
This song marked the original pop princess’ transition from ingénue to femme fatale. Perhaps it can inspire those of us who walk around feeling ethically spotless to remember that we all make the same mistakes (and usually twice).

“On Bended Knee”
(Boyz II Men)
Those of us Jews who are not football players (so, all of us) only take a knee once a year — during the Yom Kippur musaf service, when cantors, rabbis and often whole congregations bow down in unison to commemorate the ancient Temple service.

“Wake Me Up When September Ends”
(Green Day)
For the shul-shluffer (synagogue sleeper) in all of us.

Binyamin Kagedan has an M.A. in Jewish thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. This story originally was published by

Why Don’t Jews Like To Pray?

Rabbi Steven Wernick says there is a difference between davening, the skill of being able to navigate the siddur, and prayer. (Provided)

Rabbi Steven Wernick says there is a difference between davening, the skill of being able to navigate the siddur, and prayer. (Provided)

According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18a), the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the 10 days of penitence, is the time period when God is considered to be both “found” and “close.” And it’s not uncommon for Jews to feel during the month of Elul and then the High Holiday period an itch to connect with the Jewish community and with God.

To some, prayer may seem an obvious. Prayer, according to United Synagogue CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick, is a mechanism by which one can create “habits of holiness and recognize holiness in one’s life.”

So why don’t Jews like to pray?

Perhaps it is because we struggle with a belief in God; a 2006 Harris Poll Survey of Religion found that 12 percent of Jewish respondents claim they don’t believe in God. Another 24 percent weren’t sure (the highest statistic of all identified religious groups).

“In Western liberal society, where so many Jews are educated in the fields of science and reasoning and so forth … if you can’t prove it them it must not exist,” said Rabbi Wernick, noting that this perspective is juxtaposed with “Republican religious images of God, which are really simplistic — God is this great puppet master in the sky. … The starting point becomes difficult.”

Maybe we think our prayers don’t do any good.

As modern Americans, we likely view our appeals to God in parallel to the way young children approach Santa Claus. We ask for something, God checks if we have been naughty or nice, and determines if we can have what we asked for.  We are praying to God and asking God to intervene in our lives somehow. When that doesn’t happen, we question whether He exists — or are angered because He said, “No.”

There is a language barrier; prayers, even in liberal synagogues, are often sung in Hebrew. And even if in English, the translation is not exact — and can be misleading.

Plus, prayer takes times.

“How many people want to sit through five hours of something they don’t understand?” asked Rabbi Wernick.

But the rabbis interviewed for this article — Isralight’s Rabbi David Aaron, Temple Oheb Shalom’s Rabbi Steven Fink, Soveya’s Rabbi Eli Glase, and Rabbi Wernick — turn commonly held beliefs about God and prayer on their heads. Prayer is not begging and pleading with God for help — that is a Christian idea, they say.

The English word prayer comes from the Latin word precaria, which means “obtained by entreaty.” In this translation, to pray is to ask for something. But Jewish prayer, said Rabbi David Aaron is “an act of personal transformation.”

“Of course God listens to our prayers and answers them,” Rabbi Aaron explained. “But we are not trying to change God’s mind. We are trying to change ourselves.”

The word tefilah comes from the reflexive verb hitpalel, said Rabbi Fink, which means to judge oneself.

“When you are praying … you should ask yourself, ‘Am I listening to my prayers? Does what I say impact me? Have I changed?’” Rabbi Aaron said.

We see the word palel in the Torah, in the story of Jacob and Joseph. When Joseph learns that his father Jacob is nearing death, he goes to his father for a blessing for his two children. Jacobs says, “I never palel-ti that I would ever see your face again, and God has granted me to even see the face of your children.”

“What does the term mean here?” asked Rabbi Aaron. “I never hoped? I never imagined? I never dreamed? I never anticipated? The great 11th-century Torah commentator Rashi explains the verse to mean, ‘I never would have filled my heart to think the thought that I would ever see your face again.’ Therefore, when we l’hitpalel, we are actively, intentionally trying to fill our hearts, to think the thoughts, to dream the dreams of what it is we want to see and do in the world and then change ourselves in order to make these things happen.”

Rabbi David Aaron says that through prayer we are not trying to move God, but ourselves. (Provided)

Rabbi David Aaron says that through prayer we are not trying to move God, but ourselves. (Provided)

Prayer, therefore, can happen, even when there is doubt in God; doubt is an important part of being Jewish. (The name of our people, Israel, literally means one who struggles with God. According to the abovementioned Harris poll, only 30 percent of Jewish respondents said they are absolutely certain there is a God.) Using tefilah as a process of self-reflection goes a long way toward helping us act even in the face of doubt.

“When we pray, we are actually judging ourselves against the standards we should be observing for our conduct and behavior and values. Are we as righteous as can be? Are we as merciful as we can be? Are we engaging in creating a better world? … Are we measuring up to what God wants — and that is to be the best individual we can be,” said Rabbi Fink. “A lot of Jews have trouble with God-centered theology. I don’t have a problem with that whatsoever. We can view God however we want when we read the liturgy. … Our own individual concepts of God can come into play when we repeat the prayers.”

Rabbi Aaron equates this to iTunes. You look at the computer screen and there are five songs to choose from. You download one. When we pray, he said, we are not changing God’s mind, the reality is not expected to change because we cried or we begged enough.

“We are not trying to move God, but ourselves. When something [a block] in us moves out of the way, we are allowing for bracha [blessing] to move into our lives. It is not Hashem that changed His mind. We were able to set in place the conditions that allowed a different scenario to download,” Rabbi Aaron said.

“God is in control of everything that happens to us — we have to exert our effort,” said Rabbi Glaser. “There is an idea that God determines one’s money for the coming year. Do I have to have a fantastic, inspiring service on the High Holidays or can I know that God determines my income and go to the beach in Tahiti and drink coladas, and God will send down a parachute with my income? Can God do that? He can. Will he? Probably not. He does not want me relying on miracles. I have to put in my effort.”

Pray To Build
That does not mean that God does not listen to our prayers. In fact, we learn from the Amidah, the central Jewish liturgy, that he does. In the first blessing, we read, “Elokeinu, our God, who cares and responds to our choices and deeds … the God of our father, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak and the God of Yaakov.”

Rabbi Aaron, in his new book “Tefilah Training,” explains that from this we know that even if we are unworthy, He hears our prayers in the merit of our forefathers and gives us individual attention, as He did for them.

Rabbi Aaron goes on to explain that blessing 16 of 18 of the Amidah ends, “Blessed are You, Hashem, who hears our prayers.”

Rabbi Eli Glaser of Soveya uses prayer  to help clients refrain from emotional eating. (David Stuck)

Rabbi Eli Glaser of Soveya uses prayer
to help clients refrain from emotional eating. (David Stuck)

But we are not asking God to gives us a direct ans-wer, we are praying to build a relationship with God.

“We pray for … a return to God, as well as God’s return to us,” said Rabbi Aaron. “Although we pray to God, we also pray with God.”

In her 2007 sermon, Rabbi Tracee Rosen, now of Temple Gan Elohim, said that tefilah is a two-way street.

“We pray, we demand, we complain, we praise, we promise, and we allow ourselves to receive the guidance, the comfort and the assurances that come from our tradition in return,” she said in her talk, which was reprinted on Utah’s Congregation Kol Ami’s website.

In order for the relationship to work, we have to believe we are worthy of the conversation. This, said Rabbi Aaron, is once again apparent in the Amidah. In his book, Rabbi Aaaron explains that rather than stating, “Listen to our words,” we assert, “Listen to our voice.”

“In other words, ‘Regardless of what we say, listen to us. Just our voice should be enough to get Your attention.’ This is indeed a bold statement. It is difficult to imagine that our little voice holds any significance to God, and yet it does — because God loves us,” wrote Rabbi Aaron.

Through prayer we are bringing God more into our lives. And the more one believes in this, the more it will be true, said several of those interviewed. To feel God’s blessings, however, we have to be willing and ready to receive them.

Rabbi Aaron provides the following example: “Imagine you want to surprise your friend with a gourmet dinner, so you tell him to come over at 7 p.m. He thinks, ‘Hmm, 7, that’s dinnertime. But I guess he wants to speak to me about something important.’

“On his way over, he thinks that to really be able to focus on what you want to talk about, he will need to eat something. He stops off on his way to eat a hamburger and some fries, so he will not be hungry. When he gets to your house, you yell, ‘Surprise!’ and point to the incredible gourmet meal in the dining room. What will your friend do? He will eat the meal so as not to hurt your feelings, but he will not enjoy it because he is not hungry.”

In the same way, Rabbi Aaron said, God does not give us something unless we truly want it.

“God orchestrates our life so that we will thirst for His blessings,” he said.

Preparing To Pray
Transitioning from rehearsed or rote prayer to contemplative relationship-building prayer is challenging. As Americans, we have been socialized to think of public prayer as a performance. But prayer is not an opera or musical theater. It is not about the star, but about the audience.

“Jewish leaders are disturbed by people talking in shul and want to somehow fear them into not speaking in shul. If we want Jews not to speak in shul, we have to inspire them to want to speak [to each other] to Hashem in shul,” said Rabbi Aaaron.

And that means providing a comfortable environment and an education — and this is for everyone, said Rabbi Wernick.

“How does the music we choose amplify the sense of theology and the emotional mood of the prayers we are reciting,” said Rabbi Wernick. “How do we create multiple portals to meet people where they are and to help overcome the obstacles to prayer?”

For many American Jews, Hebrew prayers are challenging to follow.

For many American Jews, Hebrew prayers are challenging to follow.

Rabbi Wernick said there is a difference between davening, the skill of being able to navigate the siddur, and prayer, “having the skills to really connect spiritually with some of the themes that are accomplished in the davening. Sometimes we are in such a rush to get through the siddur, to daven, that we forget about praying.”

Rabbi Fink noted that it is important not to be deterred by one bad experience.

“Every synagogue service is different. While the Hebrew may be similar, all of the melodies are different. I think one has to find what is most comfortable for that person within a particular synagogue,” he said, noting that Oheb offers multiple services with different styles and feels so that each member can find what is comfortable for him or her.

“We have more than 60 synagogues in Baltimore,” said Rabbi Fink. “Just because you don’t feel right in one synagogue, doesn’t mean you won’t feel right in another.”

And being in a community, while not essential, is an important part of prayer.

“Prayer is not limited to community, although prayer is best in a community,” said Rabbi Fink, “as community helps upholds our standards and values. As part of a community, we are not alone.”

Elul and the High Holidays are a good time to get started with prayer, said Rabbi Wernick. He recommended looking first at Unitaneh Tokef, the climax of the High Holiday liturgy.

“The prayer asks the question, ‘Who will live and who will die?’ The answer it gives is teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah can take the sting out of the decree,” said Rabbi Wernick. “We don’t know who will live and who will die. But the values of retuning to God, cultivating a relationship and applying it in the world through tzedakah help individuals and communities deal with what is put before us. That is what it is all about.”

True To Their Words

Elise Saltzberg explains that the BJCC does not have services; it has programs. (David Stuck)

Elise Saltzberg explains that the BJCC does not have services; it has programs.
(David Stuck)

Elise Saltzberg is a fourth-generation Secular Jew with a capital S.

“A secular Jew with a small s is often translated to mean unaffiliated and uninvolved,” explained Saltzberg, 56, of Pikesville, a founding member of the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah, a Secular Humanistic congregation founded by Rabbi Judith Seid about 15 years ago.

“Growing up, I went to a secular Jewish Sunday school. We learned Jewish history, culture and celebrated some Jewish holidays (not God-centered ones) like Purim, Sukkot and Passover. I learned to speak Yiddish. It wasn’t ‘Jewish light.’ It was a different model,” said Saltzberg, who was raised in New Jersey.

In her 2001 book, “God-Optional Judaism,” Rabbi Seid, who now lives in Northern California, wrote that precursors to Secular Humanism existed as early as the mid-1500s,although Jews didn’t began to self-identify as Secularists until the mid-1800s.

According to Rabbi Seid, “Secularism was based on the idea that there was a distinct Jewish national spirit that had been created over the centuries of Jewish experience and that this national spirit, or ‘peoplehood,’ rather than religious dogma was what defined being Jewish.”

Saltzberg acknowledged that many Jews have trouble accepting a Judaism that doesn’t contain a fundamental belief in God. Her husband, Dr. David Saltzberg, was one.

“David was from a very different background. He was raised Orthodox, although not by today’s standards. When we got married, I agreed to keep kosher, send my kids to day school and attend shul,” said Saltzberg, who noted that in addition to her membership in the BJCC, she and her family are also active members of Chevrei Tzedek.

“I have no regrets. I agreed to everything in the context of shalom bayit (peace at home), which is very important to me. My kids got a wonderful education, and the people I’ve met through school are my best friends in Baltimore,” she said.

Saltzberg attends services at Chevrei most Shabbatot but isn’t actively engaged in the service.

“Either I chat outside with friends or I read a Jewish book or magazine,” she said.

While some may find her admission baffling, a section of the 2008 Pew Forum study, Belonging Without Believing: Jews and Their Distinctive Patterns of Religiosity — and Secularity, showed that while 55 percent of self-identified Jews belong to congregations, only 41 percent believe in God or a universal spirit. In other words, almost half of affiliated Jews don’t believe in the religion their synagogues are teaching them or their children.

For many people, wrote Rabbi Seid, participating in services when they don’t believe in much of the content poses no conflict. These non-believers are in shul for the sense of community, history, poetry and music they find there. They are able to “ignore or redefine what is offensive to their true beliefs.”

Yet, Jews such as herself, she wrote, are “just constitutionally unable to say what we don’t believe. We understand that words have literal meanings and transcendent meanings, but we are not willing to ignore the literal meanings to achieve the transcendent.”

Bob Jacobson first learned about BJCC through an article in the JT. Today, he is co-president. (David Stuck)

Bob Jacobson first learned about BJCC through an article in the JT. Today, he is co-president.
(David Stuck)

Bob Jacobson, BJCC co-president, came to that conclusion when he was 19, after spending his childhood in Cranston, R.I., where he was raised in an observant Conservative family.

“I went to Hebrew School, had my bar mitzvah, was confirmed and was pretty devout until [then],” he said. “Then it stopped making sense. One day in services, I realized I didn’t believe what I was reading. It was freeing but also alienating. Now what?”

Jacobson, 62, said he did “nothing” about his Jewish practice until 1982, when he got married.

“Neither my wife nor I were religious or affiliated with a synagogue, but I had a feeling of wanting to be married Jewishly,” he said.” So we got married at Beth Am Synagogue. Later, my wife got involved at Beit Tikvah. My son went to Sunday school there.

“I first read about BJCC in the Jewish Times. About six months later, I made it to a program and said, ‘This is for me; I feel comfortable here.’”

Saltzberg stressed that BJCC doesn’t have services.

“We have programs,” she said.

Many of the programs are held in members’ homes. Sometimes, as with this year’s High Holiday programs, they are held at larger venues.

A typical BJCC Rosh Hashanah program includes holiday-themed readings, poetry and songs. Apples and honey are served, members take stock of the previous year and participate in a modified tashlich (symbolic casting-away-of-sins) activity,” Jacobson said.

On Yom Kippur, the congregation listens to a recording of Kol Nidre.

“One year, we listened to Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. Another year, I played it on clarinet. Last year, we listened to Johnny Mathis,” said Jacobson.

BJCC members participate in an abbreviated version of the Al Khet (confession of sins), but in addition, they acknowledge the positive contributions they have made throughout the year. As in congregations elsewhere, Yom Kippur observance at BJCC includes the blowing of a shofar.

Fasting, said Saltzberg, is not part of BJCC’s tradition. However, the group’s Yom Kippur program is the only event at which food is not served.

In addition to holiday celebrations, the congregation offers a Friday night Shabbat program and a variety of Jewish educational programs. Every year, BJCC honors a Secular Humanistic Jewish role model. This coming year’s honoree is the late author and illustrator Maurice Sendak.

The congregation doesn’t have traditional b’nai mitzvot services, but does have a structure for b’nai mitzvot-style experiences. Usually, said Jacobson, the b’nai mitzvah candidate is given a Torah portion to study, but he or she is not expected to read it in Hebrew or to chant. Students are also required to complete a research project and presentation and participate in a community service project.

Community service is an important part of the congregation’s mission. Tzedakah is collected each year, and a recipient organization is chosen at the BJCC’s annual meeting. This year’s recipient was Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Last year, the recipient was Jewish Recovery Houses.

Today, the congregation includes about 20 households and is affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism, one of two umbrella organizations for Secular Humanistic Judaism. The group has no rabbi.

Rabbi Seid began rabbinical studies and became the first person ordained by the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews during the time she led BJCC. Jacobson recalled that the rabbi was rejected by the Baltimore Board of Rabbis when she applied for membership about 10 years ago.

“We’re probably off the radar for most of the Jewish community,” said Jacobson. “To the extent we’re known, there’s probably a lack of understanding. I’ve literally had people ask, ‘Is this a Messianic thing?’ Many in the mainstream Jewish community don’t seem to grasp that you can be actively Jewish and a Secular Humanist. They ignore the fact that a huge segment of the Israeli population practices Judaism this way, as did most of the early Zionist leaders, among them David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.”

As for Jacobson, Secular Humanistic Judaism is a way he can practice Judaism and express his Jewish identity without conflict.

“A big principle of Secular Humanistic Judaism is integrity — we say and do what we believe in and conversely don’t say or don’t do what we don’t believe in,” he said.

Join BJCC For The High Holidays
Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah will offer free services for Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. at Prologue Inc., 3 Milford Road and for Yom Kippur on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. at Summit Chase Clubhouse, 2405 Green Summit Road. To make a reservation, call 410-493-2473 by Aug. 30 or


Rosh Hashanah In The Park

082313_rh_in_the_parkTemple Isaiah in Fulton is moving its popular Rosh Hashanah family service outdoors this year to Centennial Park in Ellicott City.

Last year, the Howard County congregation’s afternoon open-to-the-public family service at the temple drew close to 200 people. Now, the congregation is trying its hand at what’s called “Public Space Judaism.”

“It’s really meant to be something that’s relaxed and celebratory,” said Rabbi Craig Axler, who explained it’s a way for the synagogue to create opportunities that draw people to Judaism, “to be able to put something out there that has a low enough bar that anyone could come in.”

If passers-by just wander in, so much the better, he said.

“That’s part of what happens with Public Space Judaism. There will likely be some people who come because they’re intrigued,” Rabbi Axler noted.

Temple Isaiah will hold its traditional morning service as usual. The family service is an opportunity for families to worship together, as well as an opportunity to reach into the unaffiliated community.

“Mostly, the focus on that day is to bring in the New Year joyously at a beautiful location, up on the hill overlooking the lake, and have that spiritually in the outdoors,” said Monica Recht, a member of the Temple Isaiah board.

The service takes place on Thursday, Sept. 5, at 2:30 p.m. at Centennial Park Pavilions E, F and G — rain or shine. It’s free and open to all.

Participants are invited to arrive an hour early with a picnic lunch. Families should bring blankets to sit on, and they can throw balls and toss Frisbees as they wait for the service.

“The service, I think, is going to be really lovely. It will be really great for families,” said Rachel Petroff Kessler, Temple Isaiah’s family educator. “There will be a lot of singing, great stories by Rabbi Axler. Whether these are families that are also celebrating the holiday at synagogue in some way or are not currently connected to a synagogue in the area, it’s a great way for them to have a Rosh Hashanah experience together.”

“They can certainly expect a lot of music,” said Rabbi Axler.

At 3:45 p.m., the congregation will head to Centennial Lake for Tashlich, where participants will toss bits of bread or other food into the water to symbolically cast off the sins of the previous year.

A dessert Kiddush follows Tashlich.

The outdoor family service is a first for Howard County. The organizers emphasize that Rosh Hashanah in the Park is in no way competing with Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s popular Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville. In its seventh year, the Under the Stars service will take place on erev Rosh Hashanah, Wednesday, Sept. 4. (Under the Stars is also free, but preregistration is required. Go to

Working with the Jewish Outreach Institute, Temple Isaiah will hand out customized Shalom Sesame calendars for the kids to take home and color. The calendars list Temple Isaiah events and other Jewish events and activities in Howard County.

“We’re out there opening our arms. We’re publicizing this event within our synagogue community and also in the broader community in Columbia and Howard County,” said Petroff Kessler. “This is something we hope everyone feels comfortable attending, whether they’re members of a synagogue or not.”

If successful, Rosh Hashanah in the Park could become an annual event.

Rosh Hashanah in the Park
Thursday, Sept. 5, 2:30 p.m.
Centennial Park, Pavilions E, F, G
4800 Woodland Road, Ellicott City

For information, call 410-888-9100 or visit

Amy Landsman is an area freelance writer.

Speak Easy

Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein wades through piles of notes to prepare his High Holiday sermon. (Justin Tsucalas)

Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein wades through piles of notes to prepare his High Holiday sermon.
(Justin Tsucalas)

It’s a daunting process, but it’s one that Beth Israel Congregation Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein inevitably faces every year.

With the High Holidays right around the corner, Rabbi Goldstein, usually in the days leading up to Labor Day weekend, will park himself at his desk, spread out all of the various materials — in the form of email messages, recorded iPhone notes, handwritten thoughts and bookmarked pages — that he’s accrued over the course of the year and embark on crafting his Rosh Hashanah sermon.

Rabbi Goldstein admits that he is not the most organized person, but realistically, even the highest level of orderliness could not account for the piles of potential notes, talking points and life events that have amassed from the time Yom Kippur ended in 2012.

And that is the task for Rabbi Goldstein, sifting through everything from the year that was, scouring it for the most significant forms of meaning to relay to his congregation. Oh, and he also has to do it in a timeframe that keeps his listeners interested and engaged.

Rabbi Goldstein said some of his colleagues have their Rosh Hashanah sermons written months in advance. Rabbi Goldstein’s sermon may be added to, edited or erased just hours before he ascends the bima.

“It’s a constant process leading up to hours before the holiday begins,” said Rabbi Goldstein, in his 18th year at Beth Israel. “Some of my colleagues have already written their sermons by May or June and have carefully, over the course of the year, begun that process; that’s never been my style. Every rabbi works differently in that way. … I’ve had the wisdom of knowing over 30 years of doing this that things change and require refocus.”

Rabbi Sander Goldberg of Nachal Chaim has cultivated his personal style, perfected over the course of four decades in the pulpit. He explained that at his Orthodox synagogue, the Rosh Hashanah sermons are of a different ilk than those of a Reform and Conservative service. And, he doesn’t take much time to prepare.

“I don’t think I write anything down. Perhaps I should, but I don’t,” Rabbi Goldberg said. “I start the night before Rosh Hashanah … I don’t really prepare.”

Rabbi Goldberg does go over reading materials and inserts paper clips into items he wants to directly quote or refer to. He then brings the content with him to the lectern.

He also explained that unlike some other rabbis, he very rarely, if ever, relates his sermons to a current event. Instead, he analyzes the Talmud and the Bible and goes into how it defines the meaning of Rosh Hashanah.

With more than 40 years of conducting High Holiday sermons, does Rabbi Goldberg ever worry about running out of ideas?

“There’s so much Torah to study, so many different aspects, so much Talmud and Midrash … that you’re not going to run out of things to talk about,” he said. There are hundreds and hundreds of books that talk about the holidays. Each and every one says something a little bit different. … That’s not to say that after many, many years I don’t repeat something I’ve said [before], but no one is going to remember it anyway.”


Rabbi Ron Shulman places a great deal of effort on relating his sermons to his congregation.
(Justin Tsucalas)

Chizuk Amuno Congregation Rabbi Ron Shulman has his own take on the Rosh Hashanah sermon, and sermons in general for that matter. In addition to being a rabbi for 31 years, Rabbi Shulman was a professor of homiletics (the art of preaching) at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Shulman speaks from a prepared text but also makes sure to communicate  extemporaneously, meaning that he does not read directly from his notes and instead makes eye contact with his audience.

“You want to present your thoughts in way that will connect with the congregation,” Rabbi Shulman said. “I also think words matter, and you want to prepare carefully what you want to say, but let the mood of the moment impact the delivery.”

Rabbi Shulman also places a great deal of emphasis on relating his sermons to the congregation. Although he has been a rabbi for more than three decades, this is only his 10th year at Chizuk Amuno. He explained that it takes time to build a rapp-ort with a new congregation, and that the relationship is crucial to a meaningful sermon.

“Sermons exist in the context of a community and a congregation,” Rabbi Shulman said. “You have to know who’s sitting in front of you and you have to be thinking not only what interests you but what’s going to be relevant and important to them. I review the year, I look back at different experiences we’ve had together so that I have an understanding of who they are and what they are carrying with them into the synagogue.”

David Snyder is a JT staff reporter 

Novel Flavors

Each Jewish New Year, as we greet each other with a joyous shannah tovah, I add a happy birthday for myself. Being born on Rosh Hashanah, a holiday with a tradition of tasting new food, as well as being the owner of The Classic Catering People, I relish in the discovery of novel flavors.

Rosh Hashanah is associated with many food customs, such as eating apples and honey, that are meant to symbolize a sweet New Year. The holiday is a natural reflection of local and seasonal foods prepared by using what’s available wherever you are. So, just as Jewish people have settled in different parts of the world, meals served during this time should be adapted based on what’s accessible in that region.

This Rosh Hashanah, I am approaching meal planning in a way that pays homage to the old and introduces unexpected elements of the new.

First. Why not seek out one of the many varieties of heirloom apples that continue to delight shoppers at Baltimore’s farmers’ markets? The blend of old and new that these apples represent serves as a tangible reminder of Rosh Hashanah and its meaning: reflection of the past year and the celebration of the New Year to come. This year, slice several types of apples to dip into honey, or mix an heirloom variety of apples in a traditional cake or cobbler.

Second. Pomegranates are often an expression of the New Year because they are a fruit that arrives in early fall, and eating them is a ritual that encourages us to appreciate all the fruits of the earth. Furthermore, the pomegranate is said to have 613 seeds, equal to God’s 613 mitzvot. This Rosh Hashanah, try toasting the New Year with a nonalcoholic libation made with pomegranate juice as the base. Another way to enjoy pomegranates is to add its red-colored seeds to a salad or its sweet-tasting juice to a vinaigrette dressing.

Third. For the daring, seek out the fruit of the Pawpaw tree. Pawpaw trees are native to Maryland, and, until recently, the fruit could only be found by foraging. Today, it is available during select weeks in the fall at farmers’ markets or can be purchased frozen in pulp form. The Pawpaw tree is a part of American history; it was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and the seeds traveled across the county with Lewis and Clark. It is often compared to a banana in taste, has tropical characteristics and is perishable. Its fleeting nature is a wonderful expression of celebrating the moment and a new ingredient that can enliven your Rosh Hashanah menu.

While Rosh Hashanah is a time of tradition, it is also a time of celebrating new and exciting things. This year, consider adding an unexpected twist to your holiday meal.


Apple Cider Vinaigrette

Harriet Dopkin is president of The Classic Catering People in Owings Mills.

Punt The Pomegranate

Let’s be honest, people — it’s 2013, and with rows of bottled pomegranate juice lining every convenience store refrigerator, the sight of those hundreds of little red stains-to-be on Rosh Hashanah night is just all too humdrum. So when you usher in the Jewish New Year with a new fruit this holiday season, why not treat your family to one of the following uber-exotic natural delicacies? That is, if you can find (and afford) them.


The ackee is native to tropical West Africa and was imported to Jamaica in 1778, where it now holds the rank of national fruit. A relative of the lychee and similar in taste and consistency, the ackee’s fruit is soft and white and grows around three large, dark seeds. Ackees are generally cooked and canned before being sold, and with good reason: Eating an unripe ackee can result in a bout of the very bluntly named Jamaican vomiting sickness.



The jabuticaba tree is very striking, its fruit growing in clusters up and down its trunk rather than hanging from branches. It is native to southeastern Brazil and is somewhat of a cultural icon for the people of that region. The jabuticaba fruit is usually eaten fresh, but because it starts to ferment only three or four days after being picked, it is also widely used in jams, wines and liqueurs. Despite being deliciously sweet and chock full of antioxidants, the jabuticaba has not gained much popularity outside Brazil, as its very brief shelf life makes it impossible to export efficiently. In other words, good luck finding a fresh one outside Sao Paolo.



Also known as the horned melon, jelly melon, hedged gourd, blowfish fruit or my personal favorite, the African horned cucumber, the kiwano is native to Africa but now grows in California, Chile, Africa and New Zealand. Its flesh is bright green and jelly-like and tastes like a cucumber with a hint of citrus. The peel can also be eaten and is rich in Vitamin C and fiber. Kiwanos can be eaten raw or cooked, juiced and mixed into lemonade or even turned into gourmet ice cubes.



If you’re like me, the name of this fruit conjures up the image of a family of stubborn and misinformed German-Jewish farmers. Thankfully, the mangosteen is actually a tasty and widely desired fruit that grows almost exclusively in Thailand. Mangosteens are renowned for their delectable flavor and fresh fragrance, which prompted one botanist to say, “The mangosteen only has one fault; it is impossible to eat enough of it,” according to Fresh mangosteens can be expensive and hard to find in the U.S., but the canned variety are easier to come by.



Squared watermelon
Not only do they really exist, you can actually grow them in your backyard (see YouTube for the instructional video). Whether they should count as a new fruit is debatable, however. The secret of squared, or cubic, watermelons is that they are really just regular watermelons grown into square-shaped glass boxes. An enterprising farmer on the Japanese island of Shikoku developed this method about 20 years ago to make the large, cumbersome melons easier to store. Today, the product is fashionable among the elite of Tokyo and Osaka and can be purchased for a mere 10,000 yen (about $83, or 16 round watermelons).

Binyamin Kagedan has an M.A. in Jewish thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. This article originally was published by

New Super-Size Kitchen Awaits Jewish Pilgrims To Uman

Jewish volunteers have finished building a kitchen the size of a basketball court in Uman, Ukraine, where they plan to prepare 105,000 meals to serve to pilgrims next month.

The new kitchen, donated by philanthropist and entrepreneur Steve Bogomilsky of Florida, replaced a smaller setup used in previous years by volunteers and employees of Uman’s Hachnasat Orchim project: a giant dining hall with 15,000 seats, where Jewish pilgrims come to eat before and during Rosh Hashanah.

Some 25,000 pilgrims, many of them from the Breslov Hasidic movement, converge in Uman each year ahead of the Jewish New Year to pray near the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who founded the Breslover movement.

Meshulom (Charles) Rubinfeld, who is heading the project in Uman, said the kitchen’s 37 ovens and 17 burners will be used to cook 18 tons of meat, 13 tons of chicken and 105,000 pieces of fish, along with 250,000 challah rolls.

The cattle and poultry were slaughtered in Ukraine by butchers from the Badatz, Israeli’s most stringent kosher authority, who flew in from Israel. Other ingredients, all Badatz supervised, were shipped in from Israel in four containers.

Rubinfeld said the food will be served in seven meals, 15,000 plates per meal, before and during Rosh Hashanah, which begins Sept. 4.

All leftover food will go to Jewish and non-Jewish charities in Ukraine, said Rubinfeld, who is holding weekly meetings with local officials to increase cooperation and minimize friction between Uman residents and the Jewish pilgrims.

Journey to Uman

Jews make their way back to Israel from Uman, where they celebrated the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah last year. (Yaakov Nahumi/Flash90)

Jews make their way back to Israel from Uman, where they celebrated the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah last year.
(Yaakov Nahumi/Flash90)

Each Rosh Hashanah, thousands of Jews travel to Uman, a small town in Ukraine, where the plumbing is outdated, the environment is hostile and the main attraction is overcrowded. Many stay in tents in close quarters with one another.

But kvetching is kept to a minimum. Why? They’re all there to visit the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a major figure in the Hassidic movement who brought the teachings of Torah and Kallabah together.

“You get to the inner consciousness where you get to meet God, and he becomes a real part of your life,” said Dovid Mark, an Israeli who traveled to Uman four years ago. “That happens there.”

Rebbe Nachman spent the latter part of his life living in Uman, which he felt was a sacred place for the Jewish people.

“The biggest sanctification of God’s name in Jewish history happened in Uman, where a very large group of Jewish people gave up their lives in order to not bow down to a certain idol,” said Yissachar Schneiderman, a Baltimore resident who visited Uman in 2011 and 2012. “Because of that, Rebbe Nachman said that place is a very special place.”

On his death bed, Rebbe Nachman said he would protect anyone in their afterlife who visited and prayed by his grave.

“He would be their heavenly defense attorney,” Schneiderman said.

The journey to Uman is not the easiest, and the town not exactly the most welcoming. While Schneiderman says anti-Semitism appears to be strong in Uman, the locals recognize the value the Jewish travelers bring into town. He said you often have to bribe your way through Uman, including to get out of the airport and the police for security.

“You’re well aware that these people are [around] you, they don’t really like you, but they understand they’re making a year’s income in a week,” he said. “They accept your money through grinding teeth. You get the feeling their ancestors probably gave up some of your ancestors.”

In June, a Rebbe Nachman follower was hospitalized after being beaten by a group of drunks who shouted anti-Semitic sayings and did Nazi salutes, according to Israeli news source Arutz Sheva. The man was trying to pray at a synagogue next to Rebbe Nachman’s grave.

Despite the risks and somewhat dismal conditions, Schneiderman said he’d go back again. While
he called the camping experience “manstock” and “Jewstock,” he said the cramped conditions give travelers more chances to love their fellow Jews.

For Schneiderman, Rebbe Nachman’s teachings got him back on the path after a rough patch in his life.

“So much of what he said is true,” he said. “You go back and think about all the things that seemed so tragic in your life and thought you’d never get out of and somehow, someway you grew out of it.”

Alon Tovim, an Israeli who went to Uman three years ago, had a very different experience. While he enjoyed the experience and got to see other parts of Ukraine, he thought thousands of Jews visiting Rebbe Nachman’s grave was too much for the small town to handle.

He thought about World War II and Jews fleeing from Germany to Ukraine, but as an Israeli, he felt very much like a minority in a Christian country.

He also didn’t experience the same spiritual connection that others spoke of by praying at the grave.

“Many people, it’s hard for them to pray, so they need to see something,” Tovim said. “I don’t believe that. I don’t think that if you want to pray you need to go to the Ukraine. Above all, we need to have a good relationship with the people over there so I don’t think all the people traveling there is a contribution for something.”

He likened the experience to going to Mount Meron near Tzvat, where every year Jews gather at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the author of Zohar. He prefers the scenic mountain and the more welcoming environment to Uman.

But for others, the experience in Uman is one of a kind, where world Jewry comes together.

“Everybody’s squished together, and nobody is yelling,” Mark said. “[There’s] every Jew from every type of background, every single kind of Jew.”

Schneiderman hopes to make a yearly trip and is interested in figuring out a way to sponsor trips to Uman much like Birthright Israel. For him, the experience got him closer to Rebbe Nachman.

“I feel very connected to the rebbe, and I feel like I did what he told me to do,” Schneiderman said. “Hopefully, he’s got my back for more than just that year.”]

Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter