I can’t remember the last time my wife and I went out of town for the High Holidays, but we took Yom Kippur on the road this year.
It’s something I did 25 years earlier when my brother was a freshman at Brown and I was a few months into my first job in northern New Jersey — driving several hours with a meal to ensure he was fortified for the fast and we both had familiar faces to attend services with. Now with my wife doing all the hard prep work, repeating the feat for my freshman son at the University of Alabama in Huntsville seemed like a good way to ensure he ended the Days of Awe the right way.
Fortunately, unlike that trip to Providence, R.I., in 1991, going to Huntsville didn’t mean worshipping among strangers, thanks to the warm, welcoming community of Congregation Etz Chayim.
My home congregation, Temple Kol Emeth, always does a good job with meaningful Yom Kippur services, but some of the spirituality is lost when you’re packed in with 1,000 or so people, far from the bimah, feeling pressed by the clock because a second shift of the morning service is coming in the early afternoon.
Etz Chayim might need more than a decade of Kol Nidre services to total 1,000 attendees, so it’s a much more intimate experience. The three Jacobs visitors had never set foot inside the small shul before 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12, yet, like everyone else who attended services, we made multiple appearances on the bimah for honors the next 25 hours.
We didn’t choose that particular synagogue by chance. It’s not close to the UAH campus, and it’s Conservative, which matches my upbringing but is a bit jarring for my Reform-raised son. But one of our AJT contributors, Scribbler on the Roof Ted Roberts, and his wife, Shirley, are longtime members and invited us.
Just as important, an Atlanta resident, Rabbi Stephen Listfield, serves as the guest rabbi for the Holy Holidays and returns to Huntsville for about one Shabbat a month. He reiterated the Robertses’ invitation and noted our presence several times during services, and congregants responded by greeting us and encouraging Caleb to return any time.
Yom Kippur can be grueling. You’re hungry, thirsty and caffeine-deprived while remembering lost friends and family and going about the serious business of earning forgiveness from G-d and from fellow humans.
But as Rabbi Listfield and Etz Chayim members pointed out during a discussion of Unetanah Tokef — the prayer about Yom Kippur being the day of judgment for the coming year and about penitence, prayer and good deeds being methods of annulling the severity of G-d’s decree — it also is a day of great joy.
By the time we hear the great shofar blast that marks the Yom Kippur’s end, we have a clean slate for the rest of the year. We have reconnected with G-d, renewed our covenant and recharged our spiritual batteries. And we’ve done it all as a community, supporting and embracing one another.
That sense of community was the key to our joyful Yom Kippur. The members of the Huntsville congregation were so happy to spend time together, and Rabbi Listfield and the lay leaders kept the atmosphere so relaxed and informal. It was impossible not to smile and feel at home throughout the day, making for an easy fast.
Thank you to Etz Chayim and Rabbi Listfield for helping the Jacobs family truly celebrate the start of 5777.