The synagogue members hammered stakes into the ground on a hot September afternoon, then draped each one with a t-shirt bearing the name of a person killed by gunshot. With each blow, they clanged out a memorial for a crime they did not commit.
And then they gathered for a prayer — and an apology.
“May we acknowledge threats, some of our own making, to those ideals,” they read aloud.
The scene at Temple Sinai in Northwest Washington on Sunday was one of many playing out across the Jewish world this season. During the Days of Awe, which begin Wednesday at sundown with Rosh Hashanah and conclude ten days later with Yom Kippur, Jews have always focused on repentance for all manner of personal transgressions, from lying to laziness. But this year, many American rabbis are urging their congregations to focus also on communal sins, leading to creative efforts to seek atonement for the crimes of the entire nation.
Synagogues across the country are adding readings to their services focused on racial justice. Rabbis are writing sermons on civic ills like xenophobia, voter suppression, and hate speech. Committees are making sure that members, including those who might only attend services at this one time of year, hear on that day about how they can volunteer for congregational social action projects.
At Temple Sinai, this activist surge meant putting up the memorial t-shirts just before the High Holy Days, part of the traveling exhibit Heeding God’s Call that moves from one house of worship to another. When synagogue members arrive at services this week, they’ll see the somber t-shirts outside and will be able to pick up flyers inside about how to join their fellow congregants in phone-banking to lobby against laws that would loosen restrictions on firearms.
Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser views this activism as a form of repentance, in keeping with the Jewish tradition of atonement at this season. “I think by doing this, we’re saying in a way, ‘We are sorry for the state of the world today.’ We need to do something about it,” he said. “We are all responsible. Even though I didn’t kill anybody with a gun this year — and I don’t think anybody in this congregation did — we are responsible. We’re all part of this community.”
In Ohio, 14 Reform Jewish synagogues collectively decided to focus during the High Holy Days on repenting for the sins of the U.S. criminal justice system. “Collectively standing and saying, ‘We as a community and a society are guilty of the sin of mass incarceration’ — each of us is praying individually for our own atonement, asking for forgiveness for ourselves,” said Rabbi Lindsey Danziger of the Religious Action Center, who is leading the “Reform Ohio” campaign. “We want to extend that deep value of forgiveness to people who don’t have it.”
The Ohio synagogues are campaigning for a state law that would help convicted criminals, especially drug addicts caught up in the state’s devastating opioid crisis, eventually seal their records so they can have a better chance of finding employment. Many of the synagogues will use time during the High Holy Days, when members are already in the buildings, to host programs on the topic: a panel discussion of elected officials at one synagogue; text study and training for new activists at another; a screening of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” at a third.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of the social justice organization T’ruah, said she’s heard again and again this year from rabbis who want to incorporate communal sins into their sermons and programming.
It’s been a busy year for Jewish activism — many clergy and congregants in the Jewish community, which tends mostly liberal in its politics, have been heavily involved in protests against the Trump administration. But now, at the introspective High Holy Day season, there’s a desire to turn inward, from criticizing the president toward self-reflection.
“I think this year, there’s a sense that the America we thought we were living in is not actually the one we were living in. The one we thought we were living in last High Holy Days is not where we are now,” Jacobs said. “This whole holiday — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur — is very much about doing the inward work of looking at ourselves, both individually and in the community. When we do the confession, we do it in the plural. I personally may not be responsible for every one of the sins I am confessing to, but I am living in a community in which all of these sins are happening, and I can’t be a bystander.”
Jacobs suggested that those who have protested politicians should also ask themselves how they are complicit: “Are we posting things on social media without checking that they’re true? Are we paying attention to the latest outrage rather than the big picture?”
That’s not a new idea in 2017 — in fact, when Rabbi Toba Spitzer began mulling her sermon for this year, she realized it goes all the way back to the Bible. Spitzer, who leads the Reconstructionist synagogue Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, Mass., will speak about a passage in the book of Deuteronomy that asks what to do when a person is found murdered on the road between two cities, with no evidence of who killed him. The answer given in the Torah is to measure the distance to find which city is closest — and then every leader in that nearest city must participate in a ritual acknowledging his responsibility.
“If a harm has been done, the people closest to it have to take responsibility, even if they didn’t do it,” Spitzer plans to tell her congregation. What that means, she’ll say, is that they need to do t’shuvah — repentance — for American slavery.
“It’s not that I did it. My ancestors got here in the late 19th century, early 20th century. Most Ashkenazi Jews I know weren’t here back then; a few were, but very few. But it doesn’t matter,” she said.
And so Spitzer’s congregation, and many others, will read the words of Yavilah McCoy, a black Jewish writer, during services this year. At the point in the service when everyone together recites the failings they are atoning for, they’ll add new ones: “For the sins of racism we have committed through the glances of our eyes. For the sins of racism we have committed through passing judgement. For the sins of racism that we have committed through baseless hatred,” they’ll say.
Then they’ll pray the traditional prayer: “For all these, we seek pardon, forgiveness, and atonement.”