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Rosh Hashana: Rabbis view holidays as chance to confront terrorism

'The choice has never been as stark'

Tuesday, September 18, 2001

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The traditional recital of prayers and blowing of shofars heard each Rosh Hashana will assume added solemnity across the Pittsburgh area today as rabbis try to help Jews come to terms with last Tuesday's terrorist attacks.

Rabbis who had spent weeks preparing sermons for today's observance of the Jewish New Year have scrambled to rework their remarks.

"Athough many people might say this is a very difficult New Year to face, there has probably never been a time when the message of Rosh Hashana has been more lucid and more significant," said Rabbi Daniel Schiff of Temple B'nai Israel, located in White Oak.

"What we're asked to consider at the High Holidays [Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur] is the choice confronting us between good and evil," Schiff elaborated. "The choice has never been as stark.

"We have to try to help the world understand that human evil has to be defeated. We have to be rededicated in our own lives to wiping away evil wherever we find it, in ways small and large."

In a somewhat similar vein, Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld of the Lubavitch Center Synagogue in Squirrel Hill intends to inspire his congregants to perform good deeds as a response to terrorism.

"Most importantly, we plan to address [last Tuesday's attacks] by emphasizing that we all need to do all we possibly can to bring more light into the world to expel the darkness," Rosenfeld said, restating a fundamental tenet of Judaism.

Rabbi Stephen Steindel of Squirrel Hill's Beth Shalom said Jews are fortunate that Rosh Hashana has arrived within a week of last Tuesday's national tragedy.

"It's almost like the [President] Kennedy assassination being followed by Thanksgiving," he said. "It was an amazing outlet to get together and affirm who we are and where we're going."

Steindel intends to remind his listeners that Jews have overcome their long history of suffering.

"I'm going to tell my congregants that we have a very special role to play in America, because we are part of a tradition that has kept faith with hope for so many generations," he said. "We know what it is to feel despair and anguish and we know what it is to work for rebuilding and renewal.

"America needs that tradition and the faith of the Jewish people together with the faith and strength and bravery of everybody in this land."

Rabbi Alvin Berkun of Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill will tell his congregants they can derive inspiration from their fellow Jews in Israel.

"Israel represents Western culture in that part of the world, so they have had to suffer [from terrorism] for many decades," Berkun said. "But the amazing thing about Israelis is they've gone on with their lives.

"Every day, they get up, ride buses, go to work, go to cafes, go to restaurants. They don't let terrorists stop their lives."

Tree of Life will be among the congregations incorporating expressions of patriotism in their observances of today's religious holiday. An American flag and a prayer book will be laid on an otherwise empty chair to symbolize the lives lost in last Tuesday's attack.

Beth Shalom intends to conclude today's service with the singing of the National Anthem. On Friday, congregants sang "America the Beautiful" at their weekly Sabbath service.

"Everyone found that to be spiritual and beautiful," Steindel said. "Everyone was thankful for that opportunity to give expression to faith in America."

Expressions of patriotism aside, Schiff of Temple B'nai Israel expects the nation's collective sadness to restore solemnity to Rosh Hashana observances.

"I have preached for many years that Jews make a great mistake by wishing each other a 'Happy New Year' at this time of year," Schiff said. "Rosh Hashana is a very serious holiday.

"I think Jews have often had the luxury to think that this is a season of lightness and gaiety, but, in fact, this is a weighty and significant time of year in which we are asked to dwell upon life and death and the consequence of what we do with our lives. That's serious stuff."

The terrorist attacks will also manifest themselves in the form of extra police patrols around the city's synagogues during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which begins the night of Sept. 26.

"There have been no visible threats but we want to make sure everyone feels comfortable," said Squirrel Hill Commander Dominic Costa.

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