In Israel, pause for prayer


JERUSALEM - Cheryl Matthews is deeply committed to her faith. But in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which begins tomorrow at sundown, she began a prayer group to make her feel even closer to God.

Yisrael Stefansky is giving more thought and more time to reading the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, in recognition of the violence and disappointments of the year about to end, will simply pray that what he calls "the plague" will come to an end.

"You would have to be a cold stone not to feel how the prayers speak to us this year," says Feldman, 75, who translates Hebrew Bible commentaries into English at Jerusalem's Friedman Torah Institute. "Everyone comes into the High Holidays with personal burdens. This year, we are also coming in with national, historic burdens of the Jewish world. It makes us all more conscious of God.

"Maybe this is what God had in mind," he says, "to bring us a little closer to him."

On Rosh Hashana, worshippers recite prayers asking God to inscribe them in his book of life. Those traditional passages seem especially pertinent in Israel today because of the two years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Stefansky is struggling to live in the way his faith commands by volunteering for a religious group whose members retrieve body parts after bombings, to ensure that the victims receive proper Jewish burials.

This year, he says, he will do more than ask God for peace to start the new year, 5763 on the Jewish calendar. He will beg.

"My prayers will be much tougher now, like, 'Please, God, please, there should be an end to all this,'" he says, sitting in the office of ZAKA, the Hebrew acronym for Identification of Disaster Victims. "There is a limit to how much we can take."

Like other Israelis interviewed about their hopes for the year, Stefansky has no grand dreams and no illusions about a better future. In the true meaning of the holiday, he and others are using the time to think about ways to improve their own lives through God and, bit by bit, improve the world around them.

Stefansky helped establish ZAKA in 1995. Volunteers from across Israel are on constant call to help, not only at attacks but for every unnatural death, from car accidents to suicides.

It is not just a functional task, but one that is deeply rooted in the Jewish religion, where respect for the dead is an important value. Every possible body part must be collected and buried - a difficult task at the scene of a bombing. Dressed in distinctive fluorescent yellow jackets, ZAKA members use razor blades to scrape blood off the pavement or climb ladders to cut away stained tree branches.

"You can lose your mind," Stefansky says. "There was a moment this year when I said, enough, it's time for me to take a break, take a vacation and leave the country. Many of us who were really active now stand back at a bombing scene."

Stefansky already devotes several hours each morning to studying the Torah, then helps friends at odd jobs - all while being on call. Now, he says, he is reading and studying his book of Psalms even more.

"I use extra time while waiting for a bus," he says. "I try to do the whole thing every day. I hope this will make me better, and if we can all get better, the world will change."

Cheryl Matthews moved to Jerusalem from Chicago 30 years ago and works as a receptionist for her husband, who is a doctor with his own family practice in the Harnof neighborhood, west of downtown.

She is a soft-spoken woman with a deep commitment to faith and is passionate about living in Jerusalem.

"It seems that the rest of the world is a dress rehearsal, and here we are on stage," she says. "Everything here is real, and because of that, every moment counts, like on stage. There is no going back."

Matthews, along with her 19-year-old daughter, started a prayer group in her apartment building. It won't change the world, she says, but it has strengthened her religious beliefs:

"It feels like we are doing something."

Like many Israelis, she knows people who were injured or killed in the past year's bombings and shootings. The son of one of her husband's patients was fatally shot on a road near the West Bank city of Hebron, south of Jerusalem.

"I have recently become aware that we are not in charge of our own deaths, but we are in charge of our lives," she says. "That is very important for Rosh Hashana, a time when we determine what is going to be for the next year."

Rabbi Feldman spends every morning in a small office, his desk cluttered with piles of books and scattered paperwork. Dressed in a black suit jacket, he sits contentedly in his chair, smiling, his back straight and his hands folded on his desktop. He looks every bit the scholar, down to a thick grayish-white beard, and he is indeed part of a distinguished family.

Born in upstate New York, he grew up in Baltimore and lived for nearly 40 years in Atlanta, where he was affectionately known as former President Jimmy Carter's rabbi - he gave the invocation at Carter's 1976 inaugural. His younger brother, Aharon, is dean of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville.

The coming holidays, Feldman says, mark "the end of a year with a lot of casualties, a lot of pain, a lot of suffering, a lot of bloodshed and many deaths. These age-old prayers that we utter really have a contemporary ring - protect your people, protect Israel, protect Jerusalem."

For Feldman, Rosh Hashana is a joyous holiday celebrated in prayer, with reserve and dignity. It is a serious day, a time to forgo unnecessary tasks, such as gossip, in order to turn full attention to spiritual matters.

"The ancient sages compare it to a person going on trial before a judge," Feldman says softly. "But the person walks into the court with confidence that he is going to be OK. He is dressed nicely. The religious people remain confident."

But after two years of violence, Feldman admits it is difficult for people to turn inward when there is so much hatred directed toward the Palestinians. It is not an easy time, he says, for Israelis to question their own beliefs and values.

"There is blame on the people who will, at the cost of their own lives, take the lives of innocent women and children," Feldman says. "They are murderers who are willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice as long as another Jew is dead. These people hate us.

"But that is beside the point on the High Holidays," the rabbi says. "We pray that the plague will come to an end. At the same time, we know the plague will come to an end when we change our own ways.

"There are two ways to fight the war that we are in. One is to fight it in the classical way. The second way is for each individual Jew to act, to come more introspective toward God and to change his way of living.

"That's hard."

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