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Holiday Resolutions Center on the Inner Self
At Rosh Hashanah, Many Jews Ponder Improvements of the Spirit

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

Sara Brenner wants to repair some relationships. Salem Pearce wants to learn more about her newly adopted faith. Judy Itkin plans to exercise and practice patience with her children.

It is that time of the year for Jews around the world: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year of 5770, which begins Friday at sundown.

In the Jewish calendar, the most sacred time is the 10-day period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, which this year falls on Sept. 28. Called "the Days of Awe," it is a time when Jews ask forgiveness for their sins and the sins of their community, from one another and from God.

Rosh Hashanah (the words literally translate to "head of the year") is an opportunity for Jewish people to undergo a process of introspection and self-repair and make promises to themselves for better thoughts or actions.

These promises can sound like New Year's resolutions from the more secular holiday on Jan. 1, but for many, they're not.

"When we think of New Year's resolutions in American culture, we have a tendency to think of proactive things we can do for self-improvement," said Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation, a conservative synagogue in Alexandria. "Whereas in Rosh Hashanah, the look is not forward -- 'How can I be a better me?' -- but a look back: 'How did I not realize my potential this year, and what do I need to do to correct that shortcoming and make sure that I am better able to fulfill the purpose for which I am in this world?' "

The process of reflection and repentance takes place over a 40-day period that begins about four weeks before Rosh Hashanah, at the start of the month called Elul on the lunar Jewish calendar. But the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the most intense.

To encourage meaningful resolutions for Rosh Hashanah, synagogues and their rabbis often give guidance.

Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda passes out checklists to the 1,000 or so worshipers who attend during the holiday season. The sheets contain lists of charitable organizations and initiatives, and everyone is asked to sign up to perform community service, said Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb.

"For us, community service is a thread that runs through everything connected to Judaism," he said. "And the High Holy Days, as the centerpiece of our liturgical year, are no exception."

Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel, an orthodox synagogue in Georgetown, plans to devote one of his Rosh Hashanah sermons to the difficult economic times, and to point out that these setbacks can cause people to "cheat and steal and take things that don't belong to them."

He plans to encourage those dwelling on their financial stress to resolve to redirect their focus. "Avoid focusing on the negative," he said he will tell his flock. "Find something that is meaningful -- that gives you some joy, some spiritual meaning, and some fun."

Jews have been preparing for the holidays with prayers, seminars, workbooks and resolutions. The most committed blew the shofar -- the ram's horn -- daily during Elul as a call to repentance, prayer and justice.

Salem Pearce, 31, a recent convert to Judaism who lives in Northwest Washington, is resolving to deepen her knowledge of her new faith. She has begun taking classes in Judaism -- beyond what she took to convert-- and volunteering for Jewish organizations.

"It helps me appreciate the holidays," she said. "It helps make it not just a blind ritual, if you will, but makes it really meaningful."

For some, past resolutions have led to positive changes. Last year, Brenner, 33, a nonprofit organization consultant who lives in McLean, committed herself to spending more time repairing relationships and increasing her attendance at worship services. Since then, she said, she has gotten in touch with an old friend and has doubled her attendance at services.

Some Jews make two sets of resolutions -- more spiritual ones at Rosh Hashanah and more typical resolutions on New Year's Day.

Pat Strongin, 71, of Northwest Washington, makes the usual eat-less-exercise-more resolutions on Jan. 1, but focuses her resolutions at this time of the year on spirituality -- deepening her faith, making her life more meaningful, doing more community service work.

"To me, Rosh Hashanah is much more of a spiritual experience," she said. "It's a very contemplative time."

While rabbis encourage people to go beyond the typical New Year's vows, many Jews stay with the familiar.

Judy Itkin, 57, of Bethesda, plans to exercise more and be more patient with her three children.

"Is it really going to make or break them if they drop a sock on the floor? Is it worth me yelling?" she said.

Such resolutions are fine with Scherlinder Dobb.

"Things like exercising more or spending more time with the kids or gossiping less -- some of these things we know we should do are often hard to put into practice," he said. "So it's nice for American Jews who live in both civilizations to have two times a year, not just one, to be able to, quote, start over again."

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