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High Holidays

The Jewish calendar year’s inspiring newsmakers

By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

Judaism’s High Holidays are a time for prayer, introspection and for those fortunate enough, inspiration. Amid the headlines on terrorism and political disputes, some prominent newsmakers in the Israel and Middle East scene gave us something to smile about or admire during this past year. Ahead of Rosh Hashanah, JNS.org spotlights high-profile individuals who made a positive difference—sometimes in unexpected ways—during the Jewish calendar year of 5777.


Gal Gadot

Despite Arab nations’ boycotts of “Wonder Woman” over the Israeli actress’s leading role, Gadot wowed at the box office while giving Jews, Israelis, feminists and comic book aficionados much to be proud about. In late June, Gadot was ranked first in The Hollywood Reporter’s Top Actors list, which bases its rankings on actors’ popularity on social media sites.


Narendra Modi

Israel has no shortage of enemies around the world. But Modi, by making the first-ever visit to Israel by a sitting Indian prime minister, showed the Jewish state also has powerful friends—in particular, the world’s second-largest country by population.

Modi’s trip to the Jewish state in July had it all, from technological collaboration, to meeting with a Jewish child orphaned by the 2008 terror attack on Mumbai’s Chabad House, to a beach stroll and jeep ride with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Modi-Netanyahu “bromance” was sealed with the Israeli leader’s delivery of a hand-signed photo of the beach walk to his Indian counterpart.


Nikki Haley and Danny Danon

Israel has experienced decades of bias and disproportionate criticism from the United Nations, but the Trump administration—under the leadership of Haley, its ambassador to the U.N.—is vowing to chart a new course for the world body’s culture on the Jewish state.

During her speech at March’s AIPAC policy conference, Haley described herself as the U.N.’s “new sheriff in town” and declared “the days of Israel-bashing are over.” Haley, who in April assumed the U.N. Security Council’s rotating monthly presidency, has promised to refocus the council away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Danon, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, made strides by securing landmark roles as vice president of the 72nd Session of the U.N. General Assembly and chair of the U.N.’s Legal Committee.


Jason Greenblatt

Upon being dispatched to help defuse the Temple Mount crisis, President Donald Trump’s international negotiations representative has now made seven visits to Israel in the span of half a year. While pessimism is typically prevalent when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Greenblatt’s persistent diplomacy has earned rare praise from both sides.

Following a meeting with Greenblatt in March, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas declared that “under President Trump’s leadership a historic peace deal is possible, and that it will enhance security throughout the region.” Most recently, Greenblatt announced an agreement between Israel and the PA on a historic Red Sea-Dead Sea canal that will relieve Palestinian water shortages.


Yariv Levin

Israel has constant security concerns internally and regionally, yet the country is as attractive as ever for international travelers. April and May set individual monthly records for tourists arriving in Israel, while the first six months of 2017 set their own half-year record with 1.74 million incoming tourists, a 26-percent increase from the same time last year.

What’s behind the tourism boom? Levin, Israel’s tourism minister, cites his ministry’s new marketing strategies to “brand Israel” and to encourage airlines to open additional routes to the Jewish state.


Thom Yorke

In July, Radiohead defied BDS pressure by treating Israel to the band’s longest performance in 11 years.

Former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu had spearheaded a BDS petition against the concert. But Radiohead frontman Yorke took a principled stand in a Twitter feud with British filmmaker Ken Loach, asserting, “Music, art and academia is about crossing borders not building them, about open minds not closed ones, about shared humanity, dialogue and freedom of expression.”


Nir Barkat

This year, Jerusalem’s mayor saw the holy city mark the 50th anniversary of its reunification, a milestone feted significantly by Israelis and Jews around the world.

Barkat is overseeing the development of infrastructure that will help Jerusalem grow into a major economic hub, including a forthcoming high-speed rail that will take residents from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in just 28 minutes.

At the same time, Barkat embraces his city’s DNA. “People think that conflict in Jerusalem is a bug, something that needs to be resolved,” he told JNS.org in May. “In Jerusalem, conflict is not a bug, it is a feature.”


Amar’e Stoudemire

The former National Basketball Association (NBA) star has been deepening his connection to Israel since 2010, when he made a much-publicized visit to explore what he called his “Hebrew roots.”

Last year, Stoudemire moved to Israel and signed a contract to play for Hapoel Jerusalem, a franchise he had partially owned. Though he never won a title in 14 NBA seasons, Stoudemire got an Israeli league championship with the Jerusalem team in June. He also made his presence felt off the court, earning Israel’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award in February for efforts such as educating at-risk youths and providing safe drinking water in impoverished countries.



The High Holiday sermon problem

By Jonathan S. Tobin/JNS.org

For rabbis, it’s their annual golden opportunity to reach a much larger audience than usual. For members of a congregation, they can be either enlightening or entertaining highlights of the services, or dreary and sometimes infuriating sessions. In any scenario, there’s no better barometer of the state of American Jewish life than the controversies that inevitably attach themselves to High Holiday sermons.

Sermons are often the centerpiece of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services that bring in the kind of large audiences that are seldom present for ordinary Sabbaths. That’s why it’s rare that a congregation doesn’t use these days to help raise money to support its efforts to stay open the rest of the year, as well as to provide the customary spiritual succor.

These sermons are also a rabbi’s chance to impart priorities and views to congregants with the maximum possible impact. That’s why their choices of topics and their treatment of them are crucial indicators of what issues are at the top of the American Jewish agenda. This is also why the sermons have become an endless source of agonizing and controversy for both speaker and audience.

It is possible for a rabbi to raise an issue without speaking in a manner that makes either the synagogue or Judaism itself part of a partisan debate. Skillful sermonizers know how to tiptoe right up to the brink of using their pulpits to advance a particular cause, candidate or political party without crossing over. Asking people to think about the implications of a divisive issue, without committing the institution to one side or another, is entirely legitimate.

But in our hyper-partisan era, in which neutral ground has become rare, it’s not easy to navigate issues relating to either foreign policy or social justice without picking sides in a manner that is bound to alienate some congregants. At a time when many synagogues are increasingly blurring the line between their activities and politics, rabbis must ponder just how far they want to go in either venting their own opinions or pandering to the prejudices of their audiences.

Many Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues have already made peace with crossing the line between religion and politics this year, through activism that clearly positioned them as part of the “resistance” against President Donald Trump. This has resulted in a so-called “Trump bump” that has reportedly boosted attendance at such synagogues, since they provide a Jewish address for liberal Jews to vent their frustrations at the president. An overwhelming majority of American Jews are liberals and are likely to vote for Democrats. A recent Yale University study of clergy affiliation showed that about 80 percent of Reform rabbis, 70 percent of Conservative rabbis and 40 percent of Orthodox rabbis are Democrats. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that you are more likely to hear a sermon that inveighs against Trump’s positions on immigration or some other issue if you belong to a non-Orthodox synagogue.

At the same time, increasing numbers of rabbis have complained about the perils of sermonizing about Israel. Those inclined to blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the failure of the peace process claim that angry congregants are stifling their desire to speak out, making Israel a no-go zone for some even as others in liberal synagogues have been increasingly vocal about their desire to distance themselves from the views of the Israeli government. Indeed, the notion of High Holiday pulpits being used for traditional advocacy on behalf of Israel is increasingly passé.

What all this means is that although rabbis are still viewed as opinion leaders, their sermons are likely to reflect the views of those they serve. In this context, the question of whether to discuss politics or Israel rather than purely religious questions on the High Holidays is also a reflection of the cultural milieu in which American Jews live.

The temptation to preach politics or to treat Israel as a third-rail issue may be irresistible. But perhaps the greatest problem facing our community is the one that relates to the routine delegitimization of political foes. The same applies to the way disagreement over Israel has led some Jews to either walk away from engagement with Israel, or to support the efforts of its foes to isolate or destroy it.

None of us can say what the Jewish calendar year 5778 holds in store for the U.S., American Jewry or Israel. But we do know that at a time when we seem to have lost the ability to listen to opposing views or to regard political differences as matters on which reasonable people can agree to disagree, the need for rabbis to help heal rather than exacerbate our divisions is greater than ever.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.



Ethiopian Rosh Hashanah blends unique customs with a yearning for Jerusalem

By Adam Abrams/JNS.org

Ethiopian Jews are greeted by family members as they arrive at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, as part of an aliyah flight arranged by The Jewish Agency for Israel and sponsored by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, in June 2017. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.

Despite relative isolation from their Jewish brethren around the world for millennia, Ethiopian Jews have coveted the same dream of celebrating Rosh Hashanah “next year in Jerusalem.”

Though unique, the Jewish New Year festivities in Ethiopia bear many similarities to the holiday’s observance in the broader diaspora.

Limor Malessa and five of her siblings were born and raised in a small Ethiopian village near the Jewish community of Gondar. She left the village at age 13 and traveled to Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa, along with her parents and five siblings, in anticipation of emigrating to Israel—the “promised land” that Ethiopian Jews longed to return to for thousands of years, unaware that the holy temple in Jerusalem had long since been destroyed. (Gaps in access to modern technology and their distance from other Jewish communities meant many Ethiopian Jews, up until about 20 years ago, lacked some basic knowledge about major episodes in Jewish history.)

In 1991, at age 15, the aliyah for Malessa and her family officially began when Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency privately smuggled the family out of Ethiopia’s capital city to the Jewish homeland by way of Italy.

The family arrived in Israel just a month before the Mossad conducted a massive clandestine airlift operation, dubbed “Operation Solomon,” which saw some 14,000 Ethiopian Jews secretly airlifted out of Ethiopia aboard 35 non-stop flights to Israel in 36 hours. Malessa has now lived in Israel for more than 30 years, building a family of eight children in the city of Ashdod and becoming thoroughly integrated into Israeli society.

Due to the small size of Malessa’s village in comparison to other Jewish Ethiopian townships, not many “kessim”—elder religious leaders with knowledge of oral Jewish law and the equivalent of rabbis—resided in her home village. This “would make my childhood memories of Rosh Hashanah less vivid than of those who grew up with many kessim in their villages,” Malessa told JNS.org in Ethiopian-accented Hebrew.

The Ethiopian villagers were entirely dependent on the verbally disseminated wisdom of the elders, who were the only people in the village capable of reading Jewish texts written in the ancient Ge’ez dialect.

“The kessim would instruct everyone in the villages on how to prepare for the holiday….Villages that had more of the religious leaders would have a much deeper understanding of the holiday and its laws,” Malessa said.

In Amharic, which is rooted in the Ge’ez dialect and is the official language of Ethiopia, Rosh Hashanah is called “Brenha Serkan,” which essentially means “the rising of the dawn,” said Malessa. In keeping with the meaning of holiday’s name, the kessim “would rise before dawn on the holy day, to begin the first prayer service of the day before sunrise,” she said.

In Ethiopia, Rosh Hashanah was—and still is—observed during the course of one day, in contrast to the two days observed in the rest of the Jewish diaspora and in Israel. The Ethiopian Rosh Hashanah is comprised of three prayer services: before dawn, in the afternoon and in the evening. There are four prayer services in the broader Jewish world for Rosh Hashanah, and none begin before sunrise.

“The holiday also has another name, ‘Zikir,’ which is similar to the Hebrew word for remember, ‘zachor,’” Malessa said.

Similar to the custom in other diaspora Jewish communities, “everyone in the village wears new clean white clothes” for Zikir, she said, while it is “also customary for affluent people in the village to have very large feasts and invite others in the village to join in the festivities.” The festivities are meant to remind people of the day’s holiness, and to “make sure that during the holiday not a single Jew is left without food and enjoyment,” according to Malessa.

“People serve lamb—the most expensive meat available—and have special meals to observe the mitzvah of feeding their Jewish brothers and sisters,” she said.

Malessa’s mother, Esther Lakau, who lives in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, said she “remembers hearing the kessim sound the shofar on the holiday.”

“Everyone in the village prepared the food for the holiday a day in advance,” Lakau told JNS.org.

“The kessim would read from the holy scripts in Ge’ez and tell the history of the Jewish people,” she said. “They would speak of Abraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov, our great patriarchs and matriarchs, and the lessons we could learn from them in the present….Most importantly, the kessim would emphasize our long-held aspiration to celebrate Rosh Hashanah ‘next year in Jerusalem.’”



Imagine a Brand New World: Greeting the New Year

By Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro

What if you had never heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or James Taylor’s song, “You’ve Got a Friend?” What if you had never tasted chocolate?

What would it be like to encounter the world as if it was brand new? What if your world was as fresh as the moment the sun rises to start the day?

I found myself asking these questions several weeks ago on a perfect Tanglewood morning. My wife and I were listening to the BSO rehearse Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman performing. The setting couldn’t have been more stunning. And what made it even more beautiful was the feeling that the audience, the grass, and the trees were all humming along with the famous melody of the piece.

It was delicious because it was so exquisite while also so familiar.

But then I wondered what it would be like to experience the concerto for the very first time. Would I love it as much? Would I love it even more?

What if you and I could all be gifted to capture the sense of awe and delight that comes with first experiences of all kinds?

What if we could live with eyes and ears so open that we always felt a sense of wonder at being alive?

It turns out that our Jewish New Year is all about this possibility. When we dip that crisp apple in the golden honey, we’re meant to taste it as if we’ve never had the luxury of sweetness in our lives. When we hear the shofar, we’re told it’s meant to be so surprising that it forces us to listen even more closely to the underlying glory of life.

I know we’ve been here before. Many of us have prayed the words 20 if not 50 times or more. But the goal is to use the season for renewing our appreciation that we are alive. The goal is to read the prayers as if they were brand new. The hope is to come to believe that new days really do lie before us. New melodies and experiences are available.

Abraham Joshua Heschel offers these words on the cusp of our New Year. He writes, “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings…Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.”

Israeli poet, Leah Goldberg, inspires me with her own prayer. May I suggest you copy the words and carry them with you during the next few weeks. Let them be as new and fresh as the upcoming season. Shana Tova.

Teach us, o God, to praise and to pray.
For the mystery of the withering leaf,
For the glow of the ripened fruit,
For the freedom to see, to feel,
To breathe, to know, to hope, to stumble.
Teach our lips a blessing, a hymn of praise,
As you renew each morning and each night.
Lest this day (or year) appear as yesterday
And the day before.
Lest our days became routine.
Lest our souls be blind to wonder.



High HolidaysFeature – Apple & Honey Pie Pops

By Sheri Silver

(The Nosher via JTA) — Like most Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah brings to mind certain traditional food customs – the most well-known being the dipping of apples in honey.

And while a classic apple pie or cake is a lovely way to commemorate our hopes for a “sweet new year,” I thought it would be fun to change things up a bit. These apple and honey pie “pops” are a cinch to make – and even more fun to eat! They can be assembled (and frozen) in advance, and are especially nice to serve for a crowd – no cutting or forks needed!

Even better, you only need a few simple ingredients, yet wind up with something truly delicious – and a little different. Sweet indeed.


2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 package (2 crusts) refrigerated pie crusts, set out at room temperature for 15 minutes
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
raw or “sanding” sugar, for sprinkling

Special equipment:

2- to 3-inch cookie cutter (or drinking glass)
lollipop sticks


In a medium pan combine the apples, sugar, honey, cinnamon and salt. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat for about 10 minutes, or until the apples have softened and the juices have thickened. Remove from heat and let cool.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Unroll one pie crust on a work surface. Use your cutter to make as many circles as you can; place on your prepared baking sheets. Put a lollipop stick in the center of each circle, pressing down lightly to secure. Place a teaspoon of cooled filling on each circle. Use a pastry brush to brush a bit of the beaten egg around the edge of each circle.

Unroll the second pie crust and cut out an equal number of circles to the first crust – place atop the filled crusts and press lightly to seal. Crimp the edges with a fork, and make a few small incisions in the center to allow steam to escape. Brush tops with the egg and sprinkle with the raw sugar (pops may be frozen at this point – reheat directly from the freezer, adjusting baking time by a few extra minutes).

Bake pops for 20 minutes; transfer trays to wire racks to cool completely. Serve warm or at room temperature (pops may be kept tightly sealed, at room temperature, for 3-5 days).

Sheri Silver writes the blog Donuts, Dresses and Dirt [http://sherisilver.com/], where she shares her passions for baking and cooking, gardening and shopping, and her adventures in and around New York City with her husband and three children.

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