Michigan Jews mark Rosh Hashana, start of High Holy Days

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Jews across southeast Michigan view Sunday’s sunset as much more than another early-autumn day ending.

Rabbi Megan Brudney, left, and Laura Williams, the director of cultural resources at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield HIlls, stand on a labyrinth set up outside the synagogue.

Their tradition marks it as starting Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year 5780, as well as the High Holy Days, which culminate with Yom Kippur on Oct. 8-9.

The period calls not only for rejoicing and gathering with loved ones but ruminating on life choices and performing a spiritual inventory.

For some, that marks the next 10 days as the most significant on the Jewish calendar.

“They’re spiritually recharging,” said Elizabeth Pensler, a Bloomfield Hills resident planning special meals and activities with relatives. “They give you a new focus on what’s important. It’s very reflective.”

Across Metro Detroit, synagogues and community groups are hosting events that remind followers to consider their roles in the universal during the time when God inscribes fates for the coming year.

The focus on contemplation takes up figurative space at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, where a library has been transformed into a personal reflection room, complete with meditation cushions, mini journals and more.

Rabbi Megan Brudney, left, and Laura Williams work on piecing together a puzzle in Temple Beth El's Prentis Memorial Library, which has been transformed into a personal reflection room for the High Holy Days.

The synagogue also has indoor and outdoor labyrinths — including tabletop ones small enough to trace with a finger, Rabbi Megan Brudney said. A meditation coach is expected during Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, when Jews typically fast and concentrate on divine devotion. 

The elements aim to offer more engagement beyond traditional worship services, Brudney added. “Many of our congregants hear those words, but they also find meaning in other ways. … It’s about taking yourself out of the day-to-day and all the things that are competing for your time.”

Reflection also is integral to another High Holy Days tradition: Tashlich, or ceremonial “casting off” of sins in water.

The Well, a Jewish community-building initiative, plans one Oct. 6 at the Franklin Cider Mill in Bloomfield Hills. 

Instead of discarding bread pieces per tradition, attendees are expected to toss in more environmentally friendly pebbles. The group plans to donate the equivalent amount of bread used to an area food pantry, said Marisa Meyerson, a Well team member involved in the event. 

Participants also can opt to fill out a postcard with their plans for the new year, she said. “Tashlich is a beautiful ritual and set your intentions for the year that is to come.”

Chabad of Bingham Farms plans a Tashlich at the same location on Monday that includes another holiday tradition: sounding the shofar, or ram's horn, said Rabbi Bentzion Geisinsky.

The effort heartens longtime synagogue members like Gilbert Borman of Bloomfield Hills, who welcomes how High Holy Days remind him to consider his place in the world.  

“The fact that we’re here is a miracle and should be celebrated,” he said.

For Pensler, who gave birth to her fourth child this year, the sacred time offers a chance to reflect on improvements. “It makes me want to be a better person and not worry about the small things,” she said.

The holidays also call for Jews to think of their community and neighbors. 

Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park has long distributed empty bags to synagogue attendees to return on Yom Kippur with food donations for Yad Ezra, the nonprofit dedicated to helping those in need, Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh said.

“We understand it as one of the central pieces to us observing the holiest days of our year,” he said. “We not only look inward to fix our spiritual lives but we couple that with meaningful work to fix the broken world around us.”