Faithful Find Joy and Forgiveness in High Holy Days
It’s a sweet tradition, celebrating Rosh Hashanah. “That’s one of the themes,” said Crozet’s Leah Baker, who’s been a member of the local Jewish community since she was five. She remembers apples dipped in honey, a sweet marinade for the brisket, all kinds of sweets on the table after the service at Beth Israel in Charlottesville. “There was a little bit of sugar in everything,” she recalled.
It wasn’t just that her particular family had a sweet tooth. The sugar, the honey, the apples and all the sweet food symbolize the wish that family and friends have sweet times ahead; in fact the traditional greeting, “Shanah Tovah Umetukah” means “have a good and sweet year.” Besides the feast, Baker said there were new clothes, visits with friends and far-away family, and a general festive spirit.
It all begins at sundown on the first day––this year it was September 18––and continues until sundown the next day. The observance of Rosh Hashanah extends beyond the celebration, and introduces a period of contemplation and introspection that culminates in Yom Kippur.
“I think I came for the food and stayed for the community,” Katelynn Fox likes to joke. She converted to Judaism as an adult, after a long period of studying religions and visiting a number of churches as well as synagogues.
She would often join a friend’s family for Rosh Hashanah and loved the honey cake, the glazed carrots and the fruit on the table. But the main reason for her conversion, she said, in addition to beliefs that were meaningful to her, was the generosity of the people who sat beside her at the table and at the synagogue (hers is the historic Beth Ahabah in Richmond). “No matter what synagogue I visited, people reached out to me and made me feel welcome. I never felt like an outsider.” She found that even when she didn’t know what she was doing, somebody would help. In fact, she was so comfortable that when she asked her Richmond rabbi for guidance prior to conversion, he was surprised to learn that she hadn’t been born into the faith, she said.
Hundreds of ancient laws, called “mitzvahs” govern the celebration of holy days as well as the conduct of daily life for Jewish communities. Some are major rules for living, Baker said: exhortations like visiting the sick, welcoming the stranger, and displaying courage on behalf of others. One of the mitzvahs for Rosh Hashanah is that a ram’s horn (called a shofar) will be heard often during the holy days. Baker said she was intrigued by the fact that the custom of blowing the rustic instrument was given the weight of holy law. “And it’s not that easy,” she said. “It takes some skill to play.”
Beth Israel’s Rabbi Tom Gutherz said one of the traditions explaining the shofar is that it’s a reminder of the ram that Abraham saw in the thicket when his son Isaac was bound on the altar. Another explanation is that the shofar was heard when the Ten Commandments were handed down on Mount Sinai.
The observance starts at sundown, as is traditional for Jewish holidays, Baker explained, but for both of the high holy days, people are back in temple the next day.
In between the two holy days, the mood grows more solemn as the congregation sets forth on the ten days (“ten days of awe”) towards the more inward journey that characterizes Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, which began this year on September 27.
A good bit of the time during the two days of Yom Kippur is spent in the temple, where readings and music help members of the congregation examine their hearts. “We contemplate the importance of being sorry,” Baker said. “We examine what we did wrong, whether intentionally or not, and think of how to correct it.
Jewish tradition asks for a personal approach to damage done to others: If you’ve offended a person, seek forgiveness from that person if possible. As part of the atonement process, adults fast for 24 hours and pray for enlightenment for themselves.
Just before the first service is Kohl Nidrei, meaning “all vows.” It begins before the sun sets, as it includes a legal component that would not be allowed after the holy day officially begins. The congregation is freed from all promises made in the past year, an absolution that many believe dates back to the time when Jews were forced, by threat of harm or death, to accept Christianity. It’s an especially powerful idea for those who believe in the traditional Jewish emphasis on the importance of a spoken promise, whether legally binding or not.
Both Crozet women find the observance of Yom Kippur meaningful, they said. Baker has children and tries to teach them the importance of being sincerely sorry in ways they can understand. Children do not fast, she said, but they’re included, often with separate services geared towards their age, depending on the congregation.
A familiar story from the Bible in the afternoon of the second day provides some startling imagery, when the congregation chants the tale of Jonah, the ancient saga of recalcitrance, desperation, atonement and forgiveness.
Fox said the prayers and music of Yom Kippur never fail to affect her. She finds that being with others seeking to atone is far more powerful than praying in a solitary way. There’s a lot of emotion in the service, she said. “It’s almost as though your heart has to be broken in order for you to heal.” She’s referring to the beginning of Yom Kippur’s final prayers, when everyone remembers those who were lost during the past year, and all the dead through all the years.
The name of the last service, Neilah, means “closing of the gates,” the end of the old year’s trials and transgressions.
After services, the faithful are released to break their fast of 25 hours as soon as the sun sets. Unlike the meal prepared with symbolism and tradition for Rosh Hashanah, this meal is likely to be more spontaneous, since potential cooks have been praying during most of their waking yours. “Many of us will go out to eat,” Fox said. Baker said by this time, her family is looking for something fast and convenient: “We’re just so hungry.”
A Step Forward for Our Lady of the Rosary
Crozet’s young Catholic Parish, Our Lady of the Rosary, has made what its pastor, Monsignor Timothy Keeney, calls “a first step” toward realizing the long-held dream of building a church in Crozet. The parish has signed a contract to purchase more than 19 acres of undeveloped land on Buck Road just north of its intersection with Railroad Avenue. Keeney said the final purchase depends on appropriate approvals from Albemarle County.
The parish, which numbered more than 200 families worshipping pre-COVID, has been presently offering Mass to a reduced number on Sunday afternoons at 1:30 at Crozet Baptist Church. “They’ve been incredibly generous,” Keeney said of Crozet Baptist.
There are also several livestreams, including the Crozet service, a Saturday service and a bilingual service from Incarnation Parish.
While waiting for final approvals, the parish has a campaign underway to raise $2.5 million. The $400,000 that’s been raised thus far will go towards the purchase of the land and necessary site work, Keeney said. The church building committee will also be looking at suitable design-build contractors.
Crozet’s history and its symbols played a part in the naming of the parish and will also factor into the design of the new church. The band of medieval-style roses in the center of the Crozet flag is reminiscent of the rosary, and the parish hopes to acknowledge the French ancestry of Claudius Crozet by using a French country design for the building, Keeney said. “This will fit in well with the hillside setting, too.”
Keeney will be assisted in serving Crozet’s Catholic community by Father Chris Masla, who has been designated as parochial vicar for the congregation. Masla, a graduate of Virginia Tech as well as Catholic University’s Theological College, served congregations in Richmond and Harrisonburg before coming to Crozet. Before COVID, Masla enjoyed playing guitar and banjo in local blue grass bands and jam sessions. He also likes singing the mass, a practice that has been suspended because of pandemic safety restrictions.
Masla is looking forward to being part of the team serving Our Lady of the Rosary, giving a lot of thought to the role of the Church during these difficult times. “There’s an increasing temptation to despair and fear,” he said. “Communal prayer and being surrounded by a spiritual community really help in the midst of all of this.”
Msgr. Keeney has office hours on Wednesday, and Fr. Masla on Monday at the church’s office in the Blue Goose building at 1186 Crozet Avenue, or by appointment. The church office is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or call 434-812-2936. For more information, or to register in advance for the live service at Crozet Baptist, go to olrcrozet.org.