Atoning for my Kippurs

Atoning for my Kippurs

I am a Reform Jew. For me this always meant going to my New Jersey temple (Temple Sinai in Tenafly) for yahrtzeits, bar and bat mitzvahs, and the High Holy Days. Other shul visits were by accident. Thanks to Hebrew school learning and bar mitzvah reading (with my proverbial inconsistent octave performance), I am able to read Gates of Repentance and Haggadah Hebrew with little phonetic cheating. In my young Jewish life, I knew the importance of these events and accomplishments, but I was robotic.

Richard Ellenson

While attending the University of Maryland, I decided how to spend my free time, I decided what to eat, and I (or rather the smell) decided when it was time for laundry. I learned many great lessons under my parents’ roof and it was time for me to incorporate which of those I wanted and how I wanted them done. It was I who went on the first Birthright Israel trip in January ‘000. And it was I who chose to attend the same Reform services as those of my childhood. Granted, I attended those services because I didn’t want to face the ultimate triple-generation Jewish female guilt trip from my grandmother, mother, and sister, but I still got credit in the Book of Life.

The first High Holy Day period after my Israel trip came and went as the season. I said my prayers, ate apples and honey, and fasted (thanks to a nap). I recognized the meaning of Israel ‘s survival during its wishful prayer, recalled my relatives who had passed, and felt better acknowledging and confessing the jealousy I had for my sister.

On Sept. ‘4 of the following year, a nasty-looking thunderstorm headed toward my fourth-floor apartment in College Park, Md. My roommate, Brian, and I stood on the covered balcony to appreciate the deluge for a few minutes before returning to our bedrooms. A few minutes later, the raindrops that were falling to the ground began moving toward my window pane. This was not a good sign.

Brian and I met on the balcony again only to see an F3 tornado with its maximum winds between 175 and ’00 MPH barreling toward us. Brian pried open the front door only to feel a furious vacuum in the stairwell. We were going to wait things out in the apartment.

We stood away from all windows and held onto the island bar in the kitchen. When the tornado reached us, it was only halfway through its 17.5 miles of deadly destruction. My grip grew tighter the more the apartment shook. Immediately recognizing that four-letter words were not going to cut it, I said the only thing that panic could bring:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.

Hear, O Israel: the eternal is our God, the eternal is One!

Baruch sheim k’vod malchuto l’olam vaed.

Blessed is God’s glorious majesty for ever and ever!

The tornado finished shaking the apartment for a few seconds and we were alive. It was the first time the Sh’ma had been used in my family, outside of the High Holy Days, since my grandmother said it before my father’s flight to Africa for the Peace Corps in 1968. 

SUVs and sedans were strewn like matchbox cars across the parking lot. Some were missing windows, some had flipped over, and a few were leaning against what was left of the buildings. We collected our IDs and made our way to a friend’s house to stay a few nights while buildings and lives were put together.

Forty-seven hours and a few minutes later, just before sunset, I walked to the campus chapel for Kol Nidre.

Still wearing the same clothes from two days before, I could not get my grandmother’s voice out of my head, saying, "Always wear your best to shul for the High Holy Days." The scheduled guilt had already started as my tattered khaki shorts and T-shirt were the best I had.

The Hillel director greeted me at the door and shook my hand.

"I’m sorry about my clothes," I said. "Do you think God will understand?"

"I’m sure he will," he replied.

Other students glanced at me, well aware that only someone whose apartment complex had a forced vacancy and tornado-created skylights would attend services without as much as a button-down shirt and slacks. Still in shock, I was returning to a familiar place to say familiar things.

On Rosh HaShanah it is written,

on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be;

who shall live and who shall die;

who shall see ripe age and who shall not.

When I recited the prayer, goosebumps rose to attention and never lowered. It happens every year.

read more: