It is ironic that so many Jews engage in active religious Jewish life primarily around the High Holy Days, a time of year with a set of rituals that call for such intense engagement. Many of us go to High Holy Days services because we are on autopilot — that is what we are expected to do as Jews at this time of the year. But the goal of these Days of Awe is to jolt us out of the automatic and to pay attention: to bring a greater mindfulness to our actions.
Teshuvah is a deeply personal process that occurs within the framework of the Jewish year. As such it reminds us that we have the ability to contemplate and transform our relationships with God and with Judaism just as we hope to do in our relationships with the people in our lives. Teshuvah opens us to the possibility of doing the internal work we need to heal what is most broken in our emotional and spiritual lives. Through that work we may begin to restore wholeness. This struggle is at the heart of these three stories of teshuvah from my years as a rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue serving Jews of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
A young man ran up to me during the break on one Yom Kippur afternoon, excited to introduce me to his parents. He had told me before, that each year he dreads the High Holy Days. Every Rosh HaShanah he would return to his parents’ shul, where he would sit with his brother and sister and their families. On each visit his father would remind him that their friends didn’t need to hear the details of his “New York life,” his code for “please don’t mention that you are gay.”
His mother would tell him which of his high school friends had gotten married or had babies since the last holiday. This young man didn’t have the vocabulary to tell his parents that his Jewish education was precious to him, that he learned from them that living a Jewish life was beautiful and important and that he had no intention of giving that up because he is gay. But that year he had worked up the courage to invite them to come to his synagogue, CBST, for Yom Kippur.
Clutching their machzorim to their chests like armor, his parents came warily into the sanctuary, the soaring glass pavilion of the Jacob Javits Center. They were surprised to find themselves drawn into the davening. Looking around they saw many families with children. They saw families that included heterosexual people and lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. They saw their son surrounded by a Jewish community in which he could participate with the fullness of who he was. And for the first time they were able to observe Yom Kippur while being fully honest about who their family was.
Another man came to see me after Rosh HaShanah. As he told me his story, he was heavy with shame. He was in a 12-step program and felt that he was starting to understand what he needed to do to become healthier, but he still struggled with his addiction. There were many days when he could not will himself to leave the house.
On the morning of Rosh HaShanah he woke up with the intention of going to shul and beginning the year cleanly. Yet on that first morning of the first day of the year he found himself engaging in his addiction. Full of self-loathing he somehow forced himself to stop and go to services anyway. He felt sure that God would not want him to be in the synagogue.
Certainly if the other members of the community knew what he had done that morning they wouldn’t want him in their midst. But he so wanted to live differently this year. Convinced of his unworthiness he approached the entrance of the sanctuary tentatively. A volunteer greeted him warmly and opened the door for him. As he looked up he found himself looking into the open ark, and the Torahs in their white mantles, the light seeming to shine from within.
What did it mean, he wanted to know, that the ark was open at the moment he came in. Could it be, as he so hoped, that God was open even to him? Was it possible that he could come back even from the deepest depths, even though he was so broken? Was it possible that God still wanted him?
I ran into one woman outside of the sanctuary on Yom Kippur. She was sitting on the floor playing with her young son. She had lost her mother earlier that year. “I am furious at God,” she told me. “Ever since my mother died I have been furious at God. I have no intention of going in there and praying or saying anything to God.”
But she had come to shul anyway. It was Yom Kippur. She and her partner were raising a child. She was angry at God that her mother had not lived to know the grandson who would surely have brought her so much joy. But this woman and her partner were creating a family, continuing the chain of their Jewish families. They wanted their son to be a part of their Jewish community.
She didn’t go into the sanctuary that year. She may not have gone in the next year either. But she kept coming to shul, with her partner and their son. Even as she raged with God she knew that for her Jewish family, marking the holidays and coming to shul was essential. She wasn’t asking God for forgiveness. She wanted God to ask her for forgiveness, for taking her mother away before her son had a chance to know his grandmother. And it seemed like Yom Kippur was the right time for that.
Each year as the fullness of summer begins to wane and the moon of the month of Elul swells and subsides, the season of teshuvah returns. Teshuvah is a gift and a challenge. It is slow work. There is no magic formula that will suddenly heal all that has shattered in our lives. We build community; we explore and reconcile with Judaism; we search for God. Every year as we return to this season we are painfully aware of what is still broken.
But each year doing teshuvah reminds us that we may begin to repair what is broken. We may recover that which has been lost. Teshuvah reminds us that wholeness is possible.
Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen served for 10 years at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue. She is currently writing and teaching in New York.