September 30, 2022
By Esther Rosenfeld Starobin
I belong to a Reform synagogue. On Yom Kippur, I always go to the afternoon service, which is led by laypeople. When my sister, Edith, was alive, she often came with me because we didn’t need tickets, as we did for the morning service. Over the years, I have become a member of the Religious Practices Committee. Several years ago, the Reform movement published new prayer books for Shabbat and then the high holidays. Our congregation has been using them ever since except for the afternoon Yom Kippur service.
One of the reasons I loved this service is because we used the earlier prayer book originally published in 1978. The person who planned and led this service was a very revered, longtime member of our congregation. As he got older, a couple helped him. This prayer book related the history of the experiences and suffering of Jews throughout the ages. I felt such a connection to this history—especially the details of the history of the Holocaust. To me, it is important for our congregation to remember these events.
Our new Yom Kippur Machzor (High Holy Days prayer book) was published in 2015. It is very, very different from the last one. The basic service is of course the same, but there are alternative readings, pages for reflection, questions to ask oneself. While I do like this format for most services, I never wanted to change the Yom Kippur afternoon service. For the past three years there has been a heated discussion about the change at our Religious Practices Committee meetings. The man who led the services died three years ago. I have always argued against change. But as we all know this year is different. We have a new rabbi and services will be online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is the custom at our congregation to buy our own high holiday prayer books. Our synagogue collected the old prayer books and these were always put on a cart for the afternoon service. This year congregants need to have prayer books at home and many people already own the newer books. This week at our Zoom committee meeting, I said I guess we really need to change and offered to work with others to see what needs to be done. This morning, I began reading the new Machzor to see exactly how different it really is. Because, of course, before I had been arguing from emotion, not information.
One of the first alternative readings in the new prayer book is a statement based on the opening line of a prayer by Rabbi Leo Baeck “for all Jewish communities in Germany” on the eve of Yom Kippur, October 6, 1935.
This is that prayer:
At this hour the whole House of Israel stands before its God, the God of Justice and the God of Mercy. We shall examine our ways before Him. We shall examine what we have done and what we have failed to do; we shall examine where we have gone and where we have failed to go. Wherever we have sinned we will confess it: We will say “we have sinned” and will pray with the will to repentance before the Lord and we will pray: “Lord forgive us!”
We stand before our God and with the same courage with which we have acknowledged our sins, the sins of the individual and the sins of the community, shall we express our abhorrence of the lie directed against us, and the slander of our faith and its expressions: this slander is far below us. We believe in our faith and our future. Who brought the world the secret of the Lord Everlasting, of the Lord Who is One? Who brought the world understanding for a life of purity, for the purity of the family? Who brought the world respect for Man made in the image of God? Who brought the world the commandment of justice, of social thought? In all these the spirit of the Prophets of Israel, the Revelation of God to the Jewish People had a part. It sprang from our Judaism, and continues to grow in it. All the slander drops away when it is cast against these facts.
We stand before our God: Our strength is in Him. In Him is the truth and the dignity of our history. In Him is the source of our survival through every change, our firm stand in all our trials. Our history is the history of spiritual greatness, spiritual dignity. We turn to it when attack and insult are directed against us, when need and suffering press in upon us. The Lord led our fathers from generation to generation. He will continue to lead us and our children through our days.
We stand before our God; we draw strength from His Commandments, which we obey. We bow down before Him, and we stand upright before Men. Him we serve, and remain steadfast in all the changes around us. We put our faith in Him in humility and our way ahead is clear, we see our future.
The whole House of Israel stands before its God at this hour. Our prayer, our faith, and our belief is that of all the Jews on earth. We look upon each other and know ourselves, we raise our eyes to the Lord and know what is eternal.
“Behold, He that guardeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”
“He who maketh peace in His high places, may He make peace for us and for all Israel and say ye, Amen.”
We are filled with sorrow and pain. In silence will we give expression to all that which is in our hearts, in moments of silence before our God. This silent worship will be more emphatic than any words could be.
Source: The Attorney-General of the Government of Israel v. Adolf Eichmann, Minutes of Session No. 14, Jerusalem, 1961.
* The reading of this prayer was banned by order of the Gestapo, and Rabbi Leo Baeck and Otto Hirsch were arrested for a short period by the Germans.
Source: Yad Vashem
Reading this prayer made me think of all the terrible times that were ahead for the Jews of Germany and in many parts of the world. I learned that the reading of it was banned, but I wonder if smuggled copies were shared. Did my parents know of this prayer?
In Mishkan Hanefest, our new Yom Kippur prayer book, the opening lines of this alternative reading begin:
“We stand before God who calls forth our strength.
The nobility and truth of our history is in God;
in God—the source of our survival,
our firm stand through trial and change.”
The theme is the same as in Rabbi Baeck’s prayer he gave on October 6, 1935, and is more reflective of the feel of the prayers in the old prayer book. Reading the prayer and the alternative reading has led me to wonder why I loved the old service and why the need to move on to a new version. I discussed this with a fellow congregant who pointed out to me that the old service showed us, Jews, as victims. I never thought about it that way. We do not need to consider ourselves that way.
I really have no idea what will happen to the service this year. It is a work in progress. This process has made me realize how I consider so much of life through the lens of a Holocaust survivor without realizing it. There are many other ways to relate my personal story and the history of the Holocaust without including it in this service.
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