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Syrian crisis casts shadow over Jewish holidays

IsraelYom KippurIranYamim NoraimJohn F. Kennedy Assassination (1963)

According to Jewish tradition, those who atone over the High Holidays for the sins of the past year will be granted peace, prosperity and life.

As thousands of area Jews prepare to begin the solemn season Wednesday night amid high tensions in the Middle East, local rabbis say they've been praying that God might bestow similar good fortune on Israel.

The topic of the Jewish homeland has long been an integral part of the religious observations for Rosh Hashana, which starts at sundown Wednesday, to Yom Kippur on Sept. 13.

But concerns about Israel have taken on increased urgency as President Barack Obama lobbies Congress to support a military strike against Syria for its suspected use of chemical weapons.

Syria's ally, Iran, has threatened to "rain fire" on the Jewish state in retaliation for such a strike.

In Baltimore, a sense of anxiety has pressed on many congregational leaders as they prepare for 10 days of observances that are supposed to bring spiritual refreshment.

"Israel is a miracle 2,000 years in the making," says Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, spiritual leader of Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville. "Yet one generation after 6 million Jews were gassed [during World War II], Jews are having to buy gas masks. I'm concerned."

Israel, a nation of 8 million, is home to 45 percent of the world's Jewish population. Tensions in the Middle East were very much on the minds of the men and women charged with setting the spiritual tone for the High Holidays, otherwise known as the Days of Awe, when more congregants attend services than they do at any other time of the year.

"I'm definitely thinking about how to say the right things to my congregation," says Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah, an Orthodox synagogue in northwest Baltimore County. "Everyone is on edge. Almost everyone has some kind of connection to Israel. Our cantor is from there. Many congregants have children serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. They're all on our mind."

Although conflict between Israel and some of its neighbors is not new, Shapiro says he fears this particular escalation is so fraught with complications that it could be worse than others.

"Things seem to be reaching a head right now. Iran seems to be on the threshold of having what they need to create a nuclear weapon. I do think things feel a little different this time," he says.

Shapiro plans to spend part of his Sabbath sermon on Saturday encouraging his congregation "to take prayer and meditation especially seriously" as the new year — the 5774th on the Jewish calendar — dawns.

The High Holidays are a time for ritual, from the blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn, to the recital of ancient liturgy from the mahzor, the prayer book specific to the season.

The shofar blast, heard over the two days of Rosh Hashana, is a symbolic reminder for Jews to engage in reflection this time of year.

It's natural, clerics say, to make the safety of the Jewish state a central topic. The scriptural readings associated with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur focus on themes connected to Israel.

Over the next two days, rabbis around the world will read from Genesis 21 and 22, passages that describe how God rewarded Abraham's faithfulness with the promise of a homeland.

"I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore," the Scripture reads. "Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed."

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the last words spoken in services around the world are "next year in Jerusalem" — a nod to the day, promised by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy, when all Jewish people will be able to return from exile to the land they see as central to their covenant with God.

Wohlberg has long devoted at least one High Holiday sermon to whatever happens to be going on in Israel.

"I don't need a war to remind me to speak about Israel," says Wohlberg. "Israel is always relevant."

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills, who says his congregation includes people who avidly support Israel and others who are more critical, sees it as part of his job to remind everyone to consider the full complexity of events in the Middle East before deciding how they feel about any moves Israel makes.

"Things are never as black and white as they appear at first," says Sharff, who addressed the Syrian civil war on Friday night and says he will do so again on Yom Kippur morning.

"During the High Holy Days, we stand in judgment for our actions during the past year, with the idea of trying to right any wrongs and set new pathways for ourselves," he says. "How can you remove yourself from the broader world as you do that?

"People will be thinking about this fluid, dynamic situation and expecting me to say something about it."

Sharff believes that even if American involvement would escalate tensions around Israel, someone must make a clear statement that any use of chemical weapons is an "affront to humanity."

Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, who has spent considerable time in Israel, says Israelis are so accustomed to threats from neighbors that when tensions do escalate, they're less prone to alarm than their supporters in the United States.

Gas masks or not, he says, those who live in Israel tend more toward a state of resigned readiness than to panic, one reason he guesses reports in the Western press might be somewhat overblown.

"I'm not sure I'd really say it's a crisis there," Schwartz says. He plans to speak on Yom Kippur about the importance of Israel, though not necessarily about current tensions.

"In many ways, the situations in Syria and Iran have even made things easier for Israel. There's less attention on the Israeli-Arab situation, at least for the time being," he says.

Wohlberg, a longtime friend of Israel, sees the situation as more perilous. He says it's worth recalling that this year is the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, when a coalition of Arab military forces stunned the world with a surprise invasion of Israel on that holiest of days.

"It was one of those never-to-be-forgotten moments, like the Kennedy assassination," says Wohlberg, now in his 35th year of leadership at Beth Tfiloh. "There we sat on the high holidays as we got the news that the Egyptians had crossed the Suez Canal and the Syrians were in the Golan Heights.

"There's a sense of knowing how close we came to losing Israel — and that it can definitely happen again."

At Beth Tfiloh, the sentiment is not just an annual feeling. For the past several years, Wohlberg's synagogue has purchased more Israel Bonds — bonds in support of nonmilitary causes in the Jewish state — than any in America.

Over the next ten days, he says, he expects most rabbis in the area to delve into the Syria and Iranian questions.

"All of us have great-grandparents who prayed for [the creation of] Israel. And all of a sudden, we're the generation that has it. The High Holidays are an opportunity to rekindle the flame of commitment," he says.

Shapiro agrees. Even though the Syrian crisis has him nervous, he also offers a chance for Jews to deepen their connection to their faith and their nation — which has been the purpose of the Days of Awe for thousands of years.

"I don't have classified intelligence about will happen, but one of the things I'm going to say [on Yom Kippur] is that when we don't have anything to be afraid of, or anything to be thankful for, it's difficult to really pray," he says. "If in our hearts and actions we decide to do the right things, God will respond in kind — not just for Israel, but for all of humanity."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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