At sundown last night, low deep blasts of the shofar, the biblical ram's horn that calls the Jewish people together, filled the cavernous Ohr Kodesh Temple in Chevy Chase.
For Rabbi Tzvi H. Porath and his suburban middle-class congregation of 580 families, it signaled the end of Yom Kippur, the most holy day in the Jewish religious year when the Jewish people ask God's forgiveness for sins committed "under compulsion or of our own will."
This year the Day of Atonement was a particularly troubling one, observed under the long shadow cast by Sabra and Shatila, the Palestinian camps where more than 500 civilians were massacred by Christian militiamen as Israeli troops stood nearby.
"What is happening in Lebanon makes it more difficult to celebrate the holidays," said Natalie Shear, president of Ohr Kodesh's Sisterhood, in words that seemed to speak for much of the congregation. " The holidays are tied into the whole idea of repentance and remorse and you're stuck right there . . . . at reflecting on the massacre and . . . .that makes things in your own life seem very insignificant. It's an emotional time. I find myself upset and depressed."
In their reaction to events in the Mideast, members of the Ohr Kodesh congregation express both anguish and anger, a mixture of emotions felt by Jews throughout the Washington area. According to Porath, who has been at Ohr Kodesh for 30 years, the massacre in Beirut has prompted an unparalleled period of introspection.
To the 65-year-old rabbi, whose own nephew, a soldier in the Israeli army, was killed during the fighting in Lebanon, Yom Kippur provided a welcome vehicle for this self-examination, a time when he and his congregation could come together and in the context of age-old ritual consider what it means to be a Jew today.
"We all regret that it came," he said, referring to the massacre in Beirut. "Our hearts bleed. But since it happened, it's happened at a time when we could take a long, spiritual look at it."
As a synagogue affiliated with the conservative Judaic movement, Ohr Kodesh Temple is typical of more than two-thirds of the Washington area's synagogues.
The sprawling brick building, first built in 1949 and enlarged in 1958, is located next to Rock Creek Park on a tree-lined street now littered with fallen acorns. It is a congregation that has been very supportive of Israel both financially and in community work. Twice a year appeals are made for members to buy Israel Bonds, with the rabbi leading the appeal. Porath, who was born in Palestine and came to the United States as a child, estimates that about 40 percent of Ohr Kodesh's membership has been to Israel for a visit. He has been more than a dozen times.
"There's a psychological and emotional tie to the state of Israel that is almost beyond description," said the temple's administrative executive director Joseph M. Miller. "It's looked upon as a homeland, as the place where it all began, though we know it didn't because the exact location of the Garden of Eden has not really been found. I have not personally run into anyone who did not wish to visit Israel. There is no other group of people, no other identifiable religion that has an affinity with a place like Israel."
These ties are reinforced in Ohr Kodesh's nursery school where about 60 children attend classes on the ground floor five days a week. "There's this link we try to establish; we keep talking about what it is like there, it's always going back there," said Tema Sternberg, director of the school. Behind her the walls were decorated with gold-glittered shofars cut out of colored paper.
Israel is also the focus of the religious rites performed at Ohr Kodesh. "Our entire prayers are permeated with prayers for peace and for Israel, it's something we have been praying for for 2,000 years. I remember 34 and a half years ago when Israel came into being, though most here now take it for granted," Porath said.
Yom Kippur observances officially began Sunday at sundown when more than 2,000 people converged on Ohr Kodesh to participate in four services held concurrently in different rooms.
Outside there were extra details of police as a precautionary measure reflecting the fears of many Jews that events in Lebanon may cause a backlash against them and a rise in anti-Semitism.
Inside, Porath, dressed in white, led the services in the main temple where stained glass doors shroud the Ark that holds the hand-scrolled Torah.
The central focus of the ceremonies was the chanting of Kol Nidre, an 8th century prayer that arose from the Jewish people's wish to be forgiven for being unable to keep their vows to God during the times they were under foreign repression.
Yesterday, the solemn services continued from 8 in the morning until 8 at night with the congregation praying to be inscribed in the "Book of Life" for the coming year, a sign of God's approval and forgiveness.
As in all synagogues the rabbi is looked up to, "particularly on the high holy days to place the entire situation in a spiritual light," Porath explained, and this year his Sunday night sermon was of particular interest.
Porath said he does not come under pressure from his people to take one view or another about Israel. "I don't get pressures, but I get input. I have an unofficial clipping service, people cut out articles and they make sure the rabbi sees it," he said with a smile.
Last Friday Porath was among about 20 rabbis and prominent Jewish laymen at a special briefing at the Embassy of Israel. The briefing was at their request. "The feeling was that we were troubled and we wanted to know the position of the embassy and what was the latest. We wanted this because we had some questions and we wanted to hear the viewpoint of the officials in the embassy as to how they answer some of these things. As they say in diplomatic language, it was a frank and open discussion," Porath said.
When he did speak Sunday night, most of his sermon was a traditional plea to the congregation to participate in the rites of Jewish religious life. He expressed anguish over the massacre but urged the congregation to continue its support of Israel.
His calm and sometimes humorous delivery did not reflect the deep anger of many members of his congregation at what they regard as biased press coverage of Lebanese events and the massacre. For some, the anger is so great they can barely bring themselves to speak to a member of the press.
There lingers among them the fervent hope that the worst cannot be true. "I think everyone has been affected by what is happening in the Mideast. I feel deeply hurt, but not knowing what exactly happened, you cannot make any judgment," said Shirley Perler, the synagogue's part-time bookkeeper. "I'd like to think Jews are not as cruel as other people might think. I think Israel truly wants peace and I hope are doing their best to get it."