Rabbi Mordechai Liebling is traveling from Philadelphia to Washington next week to help organize a Yom Kippur service against the backdrop of Pope Francis’s visit, a seemingly discordant trip that he says makes perfect sense if you understand this pope’s teachings.
In his sweeping environmental encyclical, for example, the pope called on global residents to recognize man-made damage to the environment and reduce consumption. More broadly, Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish year, asks Jews to recognize their wrongdoings and atone for them.
Connecting these themes, Liebling’s sermon will focus on Pope Francis’s encyclical and the responsibility humankind must take to repent for harm inflicted upon the Earth.
“The pope is actually calling on the whole world to engage in atonement, and Yom Kippur is calling on the Jewish people to atone,” said Liebling, the director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. On Thursday, Liebling and other organizers will participate in a climate change rally on the Mall timed to the pope’s speech to Congress.
The pope’s visit to Washington squarely coincides with Yom Kippur, which starts at sunset Tuesday and ends at sunset the following day. For the Washington-area’s Jews, that means ditching pope-related activities altogether or, like Liebling, incorporating the pope’s teachings into Yom Kippur traditions.
And whether or not they want to acknowledge the pope’s arrival, many Jews will have to contend with the traffic the pope will bring as they make their way to synagogue.
One Washington prayer group — which calls itself Fabrangen, a Yiddish word meaning “bringing together” — that has met at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on Yom Kippur for 29 years is expecting significant congestion. The downtown location is just outside the security perimeter for Wednesday’s parade, making it difficult for 400 or so worshipers, most of whom are commuting from Maryland and Virginia, to drive to services.
Clare Feinson, Fabrangen’s coordinator, said she’s advising congregants to take the Metro. If they can’t walk to services from the Metro station, a driver will shuttle them.
“We can hardly ignore it; we’re right there,” Feinson said. “We were sort of faced with a bad choice: We lose people if we stay in the church this year, and we lose people if we move, but I think we’ll lose less if we stay.”
Logistical hurdles aside, Feinson has a sense of humor about the situation and created stickers for worshipers that read “Good Yontif Pontiff.” (“Yontif” is Yiddish for holiday and “pontiff” is Latin for pope.)
Other temples, such as Adas Israel, a large conservative synagogue in Cleveland Park, and Washington Hebrew Congregation, a reform synagogue near where the pope will stay at the Vatican’s embassy, expect more limited disruptions, communicating with congregants on how to avoid nearby road closures.
The White House, which is organizing an arrival ceremony for the pope with 15,000 guests, acknowledged that the timing isn’t ideal but noted that the pope’s visit is planned around the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Religious leaders from various faiths will be in attendance at the White House event, although there probably won’t be rabbis present.
“There are also going to be opportunities for people of different faiths to participate in events in the New York and Philadelphia legs of the pope’s visit,” said Melissa Rogers, the executive director of the White House’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “The Holy Father has a very complicated schedule for this trip, so we worked with that schedule as best we could.”
Jack Moline, a rabbi and executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, said conflicts with Yom Kippur aren’t unusual, and he hasn’t heard many complaints from Jews about this one.
Just last year, a Washington Nationals playoff game fell on the night of Yom Kippur. Moline, a Nationals season-ticket holder himself, said that conflict elicited more complaints than the pope.
“He is a great man and a holy man, but every human being makes a decision as to what his or her values are, and if they are going to be true to those values, they have to make sacrifices sometimes,” Moline said. “This is one of those times when immersing oneself in Jewish life is more important than for what, for a Jew, is just a celebrity sighting.”
But, Moline said, the purpose of rabbis’ sermons is to connect ancient texts with contemporary sensibilities, so referencing Pope Francis on Yom Kippur is in keeping with Jewish traditions.
Rabbi Rachel Gartner, the director of Jewish Life at Georgetown University, said the excitement around the pope’s visit on the Catholic and Jesuit university’s campus is contagious.
Instead of seeing the pope, though, Gartner will be leading a Yom Kippur service on campus, where she’ll discuss the pope and his principles. Specifically, Gartner’s sermon will touch on the encyclical and the pope’s declaration that 2015 is the year of mercy.
“There is an incredible synergy between a lot of what the pope seems to stand for and the High Holy Days,” she said. “When the pope comes into the halls of power and says all people have God-given human dignity and inalienable human rights, it is very much in line with what we are trying to remind ourselves in the High Holidays.”
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