The blowing of the shofar -- the ram's horn -- that marks the observance of the Jewish High Holidays is not just a call to listen to what is going on in one's own world; it's a call to a larger sense of community.
"We sound the shofar . . . ," says Rabbi Jonathan Katz of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, "to engender greater responsibility beyond ourselves."
Rosh Hashana -- the Jewish New Year (the year 5751 on the Jewish calendar), which begins today at sundown -- is a time for Jews to reflect upon themselves and the vast changes in the world around them. It marks the beginning of the "Days Of Awe," which end at sundown Saturday, Sept. 30, with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. It is a time of reflection and prayer, to review the year passed and to make promises for the year to come, a time when Jews will be asked to renew their connection to world Jewry.
As local rabbis and community leaders assess the mood of Jews here, they say they see reason for some optimism -- especially the emigration of so many Soviet Jews -- but they express great concern about the Gulf Crisis and uncertainties in the Middle East.
So to hear the shofar, to hear what is going on in the larger world this year, is to hear the optimism of the last year's events give way to a sobering reality of the current crisis in the Gulf.
"Obviously this has been a year of unbelievable upheavals in the world," says Rabbi Joseph Baumgarten of B'Nai Jacob Congregation. "With such a changing external world, people will have to find a kind of stability within themselves. The whole change in the political climate in which we live makes it important for people to find stability of a spiritual kind."
"I think it's a tumultuous time and a troubling time," says Judy Meltzer, dean of Baltimore Hebrew University.
"While we're hearing all of these dramatic reports about walls crumbling between countries and warring peoples, what we're also seeing are invisible walls that are being erected within countries and among people."
Although attention is now focused on the Gulf, she believes, "the Palestinian problem will erupt again with greater force."
And looking around her, both nationally and on a community level, she says she fears "disturbing new tales of anti-Semitism and the phobia with regard to the new Americans, the new immigrants."
She questions herself continually: "When I hear around me all of this optimism, I ask, 'Am I the perennial pessimist?' I do see profound changes but I also see a myriad of problems."
Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, also sees problems as well as solutions, at least on a local level.
"I want to give pause and reflection and what I want to see for the Jewish community and the larger community as well is community-building," he said. "By that I mean building on the good relationships this community has with other ethnic and religious communities and at the same time strengthening the Baltimore Jewish community."
Danielle Roskes works behind the scenes in the community both as a teacher at Oheb Shalom Religious School and as a teacher of adult Russian immigrants at Baltimore Hebrew University. Although she expects that the situation in the Gulf "will overshadow the thoughts of all Jews during this season," she says that, "We're very optimistic here in Baltimore. This is a very strong and generous community in support of Jewish needs and the newest example is the way we're caring for large numbers of Jews from the Soviet Union."
Rabbi Herman Neuberger, head of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, says the changing political relations between the United States and the Soviet Union is "one of the most hopeful signs we've had. In a sense we have a safer world than we've had since the end of World War II."
However, as he reflects on other global issues, he adds, "While we see the benefits of what the last year has brought about, we have great problems in the Middle East which need our prayers to be solved without bloodshed."
As Jews pray this year, Rabbi Katz of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation hopes they will reflect on many issues that confront Jews today.
"I think that the high holidays, beyond the themes of new beginnings and repentance, speak to a collective sense of Jewish identity and purpose," says Rabbi Katz. "There are many people who come on the high holidays who do not come on other occasions of the year. Just coming to temple, being with other Jews, hearing the music, the words from the Torah, kindles within themselves a link to generations past and future, to bonds of shared purpose and shared destiny, of ideals and hope that continue to reverberate in Jewish hearts the world over."
Numerology is often significant in Jewish life. "If you add the numbers of the new year 5751, you get 18, which corresponds to the Hebrew word for life," says Rabbi Katz.
"Maybe it will truly be a year of life."