Metro Detroit Jews launch High Holy Days

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Penitential prayers. The sounding of the shofar. Festive meals with family and friends. A chance to plot resolutions for the next 12 months.

The traditions of the Jewish High Holy Days have sustained Karen Sage each year since she converted to Judaism in 2004. And as the sacred period begins this week, the Birmingham resident revels in how it leaves her feeling more refreshed and resolute.

“I would say it is the highlight of being a Jewish person,” Sage said. “It’s the total Jewish experience. It’s so heartwarming, emotional, spiritual.”

For her and many Jews throughout Metro Detroit, the Days of Awe that started at sunset Wednesday are an especially significant time to forge a deeper faith as well as strengthen bonds with others.

And following devastating natural disasters and lingering divisions over issues such as hate crimes and discrimination, some see this year’s observances as a prime opportunity to reach out.

“The message of the High Holidays is already a powerful message of how important it is to be in the right relationship with other people, within ourselves, with our God, with the earth itself,” said Rabbi Aura Ahuvia of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy.

“This year, my message to people is to be a light. I’m going to be talking about how critical it is that we recognize the good in each other. Now, more than ever, we’re called upon to figure out how are we going to be a light, how can we be a voice for justice.”

Communal approaches inform practices associated with Rosh Hashana, which lasts through Friday and ushers in the New Year: 5778, per Jewish tradition.

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit is marking the calendar change with another milestone: holding the first High Holy Days services at the city’s Bethel Community Transformation Center in more than 40 years, officials said.

As the synagogue works to enhance interfaith relationships and members note a growing Jewish presence in the Motor City, its board worked to find a suitable location for services. They chose the Bethel center, which houses Breakers Covenant Church International.

The move is “a confirmation of our commitment to the city of Detroit, to collaborating with our neighbors,” said Vadim Avshalumov, volunteer chair of the synagogue’s creative communications committee. “It is an iconic building, and it was important to touch on the Jewish roots in the city.”

Longtime synagogue member Josh Berkow anticipates attending services and reflecting on ways to improve relationships throughout the year. The Detroiter also relishes another holiday highlight with his wife and 2-year-old son: joining friends for a feast where they sample brisket as well as apples and honey. “The piece that is most meaningful for us is being with our community,” he said.

Heeding tradition is central to the 10 Days of Repentance, which end with Yom Kippur on Sept. 30.

While attending a Day of Repentance ceremony with her young children last year, Debra Yamstein, the Dorothy and Peter Brown Jewish Community Adult Day Program director, noted how music and prayer are powerful reminders for many. So, she endeavored to create a special holiday event for those struggling with dementia.

On Sunday, her group hosts a “dementia-friendly” service at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. “I wanted to spread awareness and take away the stigma,” Yamstein said. “If we can help communities of faith help to build a community around those who are caring with someone with dementia, it’ll be something I’m proud of.”

As part of their joint High Holiday services, Congregation T’chiyah and the Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit urge attendees to bring canned/boxed foods or non-perishable items to donate to Yad Ezra. The Berkley kosher pantry works to feed families in need and recently was involved in an effort that transported an estimated 16,000 pounds of supplies to Texas for hurricane relief, officials wrote on its Facebook page.

For some worshipers, the season means partaking in Tashlich: a ritual during which “sins” or shortcomings are ceremonially discarded through tossing bread portions into water.

The Well, a Jewish community-building initiative, plans one near Detroit’s Belle Isle Boat House complemented by live music, yoga, children’s activities and food trucks.

“It’s an opportunity to meaningfully reflect on the versions of our selves that we are, as well as who we aspire to be,” said Rabbi Dan Horwitz, The Well’s founding director. “And it’s an opportunity to embody said aspiration, using the physical action of casting away to symbolically be free of the parts of ourselves that make us feel lesser than.”

Congregation Shir Tikvah plans a Tashlich service this week at Jaycee Park in Troy. Besides that and Yom Kippur services that include meditation and adult study sessions, some members are extending the synagogue’s longstanding tradition of helping out — including gathering goods to give to local food pantries, Ahuvia said.

And Sage is part of a volunteer group that blends donated items to prepare soup and other dishes for distribution to those in need through a Song and Spirit Institute for PeaceCareavan,” she said. “Spiritually, it’s so rewarding to know that we’re helping people.”