Last Rosh HaShanah, I heard the shofar blasts in my kitchen, when my rabbi (who is also my mentor and friend) came over in the afternoon of the first day of the holiday, shofar in hand.
Last Rosh HaShanah, I pulled out an old machzor from my shelf and flipped through the familiar prayers, singing to myself in my living room, still wearing pajamas, instead of standing on the bima wearing a white robe.
Last Rosh HaShanah, we set our dining room table for just my husband, myself, and our two young boys, instead of inviting many guests to join us for holiday meals.
Last Rosh HaShanah, I shifted from being the untouchable rabbi standing on the bima to being the vulnerable woman sitting at home.
Last Rosh HaShanah, I did so many things that I had never done in my life, and I hope and pray I will never have to do again.
Last Rosh HaShanah, this rabbi stayed home.
In April 2015, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I endured six rounds of chemo, each one for 96 continuous hours. I entered the hospital on a Monday and was hooked up to a pump straight through until Friday, when I would go home to recover for the next two weeks. While I had been on the bima in one way or another consistently for the High Holidays for at least 26 years — and at my current congregation for the last decade — last year I stayed home for both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. My chemo treatment had concluded, but I was still too immunosuppressed to be around thousands of people. It was a painful decision to make. My community, however, was incredibly supportive, and my cancer journey brought us closer together. The members of my congregation prayed that I would return to health and then return to them.
I am proud to share that this Rosh HaShanah, I am returning.
Returning to the bima, to the white robe, to the sermons, to the shofar blasts. I am returning to the noisy children, the noisier adults, and the beautiful chaos of a large Conservative synagogue. I am returning to the theological struggles, the family crises, and the new babies of my congregants. I am so excited to return to it all.
Teshuvah means to return. To be in the same place you were before, but to feel changed and to act differently. That is certainly true for me this Rosh HaShanah.
Last year I acknowledged that throughout my illness, I had learned to appreciate my blessings. I experienced gratitude even in the depths of disease. I received support from my community, I felt intimacy among my friends and family, and I discovered great strength within myself. I was able to prioritize my husband and children last High Holiday season, despite still feeling weak, as I baked apple desserts and round challot. I was present for my family in a way that as a rabbi I am generally not able to be, especially during the High Holidays.
Last year I actually relished the opportunity to welcome my family into our home after services with hugs (after they washed their hands), warm challah, apples and honey, and a deep appreciation that we had all reached this special occasion. There were so many gifts – my silver linings, my Shehecheyanu moments – that I experienced last year. There were many blessings in staying away from the synagogue.
But this Rosh HaShanah I am returning, coming home. Teshuvah. I will be back on the bima that I have occupied since 2005. I’m coming back to where I belong. And yet I am a very different rabbi, a different me. I am returning, joining, celebrating, and praying together with my fellow Jews – and I am so grateful for this and every opportunity God has given me.
My teshuva is one of great personal growth and change. I am returning with new ideas, with creativity, and with a passion to make meaning out of our most challenging liturgy. It is no coincidence I’m sure, that this year I am debuting a new format for my services, with more singing, more participation, and more community building. I have been renewed, and I plan to bring this renewal to my congregation, to share in God’s blessings, and to pray that we are all sealed in the Book of Life for another year of health and peace.
Rabbi Ilana Garber serves at Beth El Temple in West Hartford, Conn.