Free High Holy Days Services, a Real Rarity



An economy in tatters is making more and more things impossible, but this year in the East Bay it doesn't have to preclude attending High Holy Days services.

Tickets to observe the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement at local synagogues run upwards of $250. But starting next Wednesday, Rabbi Sara Shendelman and Rabbi Steven Fisdel will lead free Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at South Berkeley Community Church, which has a historic status as Berkeley's first-ever intentionally racially integrated congregation.

"I can't stand this pay-to-pray thing," said Shendelman, who officiates at same-sex, interfaith, and other types of weddings and won a Bride's Choice Award this year from Also a cantor, she will sing portions of the services in Hebrew and English. A classical Kabbalist, Fisdel is the founder-director of Berkeley's Center for Jewish Mystical Studies.

The High Holy Days are a time of hope and joy and redemptive fence-mending, but they can also be a bit intimidating, what with the idea of one's fate for the following year being inscribed right around now with permanent ink in a divine "Book of Life." At their free services on Wednesday, September 8, Thursday, September 9, Friday, September 17, and Saturday, September 18, the two rabbis plan to focus on the holidays as a catalyst for Teshuva, the Jewish theme of repentance, which Shendelman defines as "returning to your best self."

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur stretch the Days of Awe, meant to be spent making amends for all harm done to God and fellow human beings. This process of regretting all those missteps, confessing them, asking to be forgiven, and resolving to change — "is like being on a path in the woods. Sometimes you get distracted and wander off. Then suddenly you think: Uh oh, I'm in the middle of poison oak. These poky thorns are tearing my clothes. I'd really be happier back on the path."

Following all that repentance, "Yom Kippur can be a really joyous day. It's not a sad day." With its dusk-to-dusk fast, "Yom Kippur is where you're doing the cleanup work," Shendelman mused. "It's like the shower after the ten-day camping trip."

A season of regrets and apologies is a season in which it's best not to judge others, said the rabbi, who relishes an ancient story about an angel who is tasked with visiting Earth and returning to heaven with "the most precious thing" to be found here. Rather than any other treasure, the angel brings back "the tear of someone who was making Teshuva," Shendelman said.

Rendered in gender-neutral language — for instance, "Adonai" won't be used, because it means "Lord" — and punctuated with community potluck meals, the services aim to keep the season's messages relevant.

"It's not all going on and on about sins," she said. "We don't run boring services."