‘I don’t go to shul,” Leon Bernhardt declares. Raised Conservative, he stopped attending synagogue shortly after his bar mitzvah four decades ago in Crown Heights, when he and his brother were saying Kaddish for their father and were berated, publicly, for showing up for mincha one day sans jackets.
Now he’s a psychiatrist, lives in Manhattan and doesn’t belong to a congregation.
Elaine Wohl does go to shul.
She’s a member of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills, but doesn’t attend services as often as she once did. Her family, also in Crown Heights, was “orthodox Socialist,” she says. Wohl had no bat mitzvah, no Jewish education “whatsoever.”
Now she’s a paralegal, will retire next year and wants to enroll in a Hebrew-language ulpan.
On four recent Thursday nights, Wohl, Bernhardt and another dozen Jews met in the basement of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion to study the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur prayerbook.
In a spartan Greenwich Village classroom, with a potpourri of machzors opened before them, the students reviewed the history and philosophy of the days of repentance with David Kraemer, professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. His course, “The High Holiday Machzor: A Practical and Theological Introduction,” was one of seven offered by the New York Kollel, the Reform institution’s adult Jewish studies center, during its pre-holiday Elul semester.
Kramer’s course “is one of the most popular ones we’re offering,” says Rabbi Ruth Gais, the kollel director. “People want to understand why they do what they do — if they do it.”
The kollel introduced the Elul program, in the month before Tishrei, about three years ago to introduce some of the basic concepts that recur from Rosh HaShanah until Simchat Torah. The program is similar to the Elul zman that treats similar subjects in traditional Orthodox yeshivas.
At the kollel, most of the students are non-Orthodox. Some of the men in Kraemer’s class wear kipas, others don’t. “Some are from committed Reform backgrounds,” the veteran instructor says of the men and women in his course. “Some have typical Conservative backgrounds. Some have very little experience” in advanced Jewish learning.
For all, his course opens up, literally and figuratively, new pages in the High Holy Days liturgy.
Dressed in an open-necked plaid shirt, reading from a machzor earmarked with little paper notes, Kraemer discusses the structure and historical development of the yom tov services, throwing personal stories into remarks about malchiut, zichronut and shofrut (the major themes of Rosh HaShanah); Satan (the Accuser on the Day of Judgment); kaddish (the Aramaic prayer serves as a divider between major parts of the service); and piyutim (the liturgical poems that characterize the High Holy Days davening).
The Talmud, Kraemer says, mentions parts of the shofar service where one sits and where one stands. Today we all stand. “What is this ‘sitting,’ what is this ‘standing’ business?” he asks. The rabbis, he answers, had Jews sit during shofar blowing to “confuse” Satan.
This kabbalistic explanation leads into more practical approaches to understanding the often-arcane holiday rituals.“
The point of this is to take very mundane activities” — when you stand, when you bow, when you utter words written thousands of years ago — “and make them not quite so mundane,” Kraemer says. “It’s meant to give you a different set of eyes.”
He holds up his machzor. “This is a really fat book, with a lot of words,” he says.
Who understands all the words, and the concepts behind them?
“In my past I remember the feeling of being lost and overwhelmed,” he says. Kramer designed his course with a nondenominational slant. “It would help anyone, wherever they daven,” he says.
Wohl, who calls herself “a practicing Reform Jew,” has taken several kollel courses. Her interest in her religion was kindled when she and her husband began having children and when one turned Orthodox.
“I felt a hole in my life. I felt something was missing,” she says.
Wohl enrolled in Kramer’s class “because I thought it would help me go through the prayerbook.” She’ll go to Rosh HaShanah services this weekend, as usual, at her Forest Hills congregation. “I definitely feel more prepared,” she says.
Kraemer’s discussions about the Jewish view of death and the afterlife “absolutely changed my conception” and will aid her praying this month, she says. “It will be deeper … a little more intense.”
“When I’m in services,” Wohl says, “little lights will go on” in her head as she reads words whose meaning she finally understands.
And Bernhardt will spend Rosh HaShanah at home. He usually works on that day and takes off on Yom Kippur, but the Jewish New Year falls on a weekend this year.
“I don’t consider myself secular. I consider myself in the liberal wing of Judaism,” he says.
On Rosh HaShanah he will read the day’s Torah portion and “review” the liturgy in his own machzor. “Not actually praying, but thinking about the structure. Thinking about the holiday. Paying attention to the themes … as a meditative device. I concentrate on my relationships with other people.”
After a month’s study, Bernhardt says, “I’ve learned to look at the prayers as a whole rather than get bogged down in the internal structure of any individual prayer.
“It’s going to help me examine my relationship with God,” he says.
“I don’t blow off the holidays at all. I just don’t go to synagogue,” Bernhardt says. The machzor will be familiar territory. “I’m going to understand it a lot better than a lot of people who are in shul.”