Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement, marks the end of 40 days of penitence and commemorates the day that God forgave the Jewish people for the folly and sin of the Golden Calf.
In contemporary Judaism, however, Yom Kippur serves as a day to atone for sins from the past year. For community members, the holiday — on Oct. 12 — has varied and deep meanings.
“I think that Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to wipe clean the slate of the past year,” said Rachel Glaser, an Owings Mills resident. “For me, it gives me the opportunity to set things right if there are people that I may have had disagreements with, or if I did not live up to my own expectations for myself or the expectations of others in my community. My whole relationship to God is through the lens of my relationships with my community, my family and the world. I don’t see it as something separate. I reflect a lot on Yom Kippur and stay all day in synagogue, I use the words of the prayers to inspire me on how to approach this new opportunity to make things better.”
“Yom Kippur is the day the accountant comes,” said Martin Perel, who was eating at Goldberg’s New York Bagels on a recent afternoon. “You have your moral books checked to see if you’re in the red or the black.”
This thought was mirrored by Shomrim spokesman Nathan Willner, who shared, “Yom Kippur really just represents new beginnings and time for introspection. It means taking a moral inventory of your year’s work, celebrating your successes and taking the time to improve on how you deal with challenges.”
I don’t just think to be forgiven for the past year on Yom Kippur; it’s a time to think about how you live your life. — Gail Walton
“It’s about forgiveness, not just atonement,” said Ruby Grossblatt, a Jewish reporter from Atlanta who was in Baltimore to get married and was also dining at Goldberg’s. “It is about forgiving yourself as well as others. You want to make a better year and come back to your roots a little.”
“All of the holidays were ingrained in me by the way I was raised, but I believe that God is forgiving, no matter what you do,” said Gail Walton, another Goldberg’s customer. “I don’t just think to be forgiven for the past year on Yom Kippur; it’s a time to think about how you live your life.”
This belief seems to be becoming more and more common. One aspect of the holiday that has shifted over the years is the form in which people seek repentance. The traditional practice for the holiday is to fast and reflect on the past year. However, many people in the community find that being active and volunteering in the community in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the Days of Awe — is an another way to derive meaning from the holiday.
Walton explained: “A rabbi that I met at Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim once told me, ‘Going to synagogue and praying isn’t being a good Jew. It’s what’s in your heart and what you do.’ My son decided the other day, ‘I want to do a mitzvah, it is the High Holidays.’ He went and helped somebody apply for college, someone who didn’t about the process and needed some help. I believe that performing a mitzvah can make up for everything.”
David Bienenstock, a retired day school teacher, said Yom Kippur is a happy day for him.
“Even though you are fasting, the idea is that whatever you’ve done over the year, you will get forgiven at the end of the day if you did what you are supposed to do,” he said. “It is an intense and busy day but knowing that you will be forgiven is worth it.”
Bienenstock also makes sure to engage the community around the High Holidays. “Every year for many years,” he said, “I have been going to people’s houses to blow shofar for them. People will write to or call me and ask me to come for all sorts of reasons. Some people are ailing and bedridden, some people have young children. I got a call from a man whose wife had just had leg surgery.”
Like Bienenstock, Yom Kippur turns over a new leaf for others.
“When Yom Kippur is over, I feel that something is different in me,” said Glaser. “I sense a new spirit in myself, and the challenge is to maintain that momentum over the course of the year.”