Re-membering with Sha’ar

Sitting in nature, community listens and reconnects on Rosh Hashanah in Alpine

Rabbi Adina Lewittes

What does it mean to remember?

That’s obvious. It means to look back, to recall people you once knew, people who you know now as they were then; to think about places you’ve been, events you’ve been through, emotions and colors and aromas, rushes of joy or sadness or the thrill of letting thought go into wild, body-shaking laughter.

But also look more closely at the word itself. See it, perhaps, as the opposite of the word dismember — to take something apart, piece by piece. See the concept of remembering as putting those pieces back together, not only recalling to memory but somehow reconstituting something that once had been and still could be.

One of Rosh Hashanah’s many names is “Yom Hazikaron.” The Day of Remembering. The Day of Re-Membering.

That’s something that Rabbi Adina Lewittes plans to examine on the second day of Rosh Hashanah this year as she leads services for Sha’ar Communities.

For the last few years, first-day services at Sha’ar have been traditional, but on the second day the congregation has met by the river, in nature, by water, overlooking the majesty of the Hudson, sitting on grass, surrounded by trees, topped, if they’re lucky — and they have been — by blue skies and white clouds. This year, they’ll do it again (see box), but with a new sense of re-connection. Of re-membering.

“I have been thinking a lot about the terrible strain on relationships and the commitment to fellowship that we think of when we think about what it means to be part of this country,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “There is angst. There is despair. But we have to use every opportunity we can to remind ourselves of our obligation to keep building this country, to keep strengthening its values.

“While Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday, it has universal themes of re-creation and renewal and remembering at its core. In Judaism, we don’t engage in memory simply to retell stories. We do it to remind us of our responsibilities to the world and to each other, and to the lives we are called to live.

“Re-membering is a way of restitching the torn fabric of our society.”

In order to do that necessary work of repair, Rabbi Lewittes is “gathering people who are living through the stories of what is fracturing out society, and who can offer us brief remembrances as expressions of hope for a better tomorrow.”

One of those voices belongs to someone whose family member died on September 11 — the seventeenth anniversary of those murderous attacks falls that day, the second day of Rosh Hashanah. “We hope to have someone who is navigating our immigration system and can speak to the trials and tribulations of what it means to seek sanctuary amongst us,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “An asylum seeker, a refugee, someone who has had to contend with the labyrinthine, sometimes hostile and cruel infrastructure.” Through that, the community will consider “our relationship to the stranger today.”

She also plans to have “someone speak about mental illness, what it means to live with it, and about the urgent need to destigmatize it. We are going to have someone who will speak to the ongoing issue of race in our country. And finally we hope to have someone who will speak about gun violence from a personal perspective.”

Although these are not light topics, the experience will not be grim; it’s about hope, about reconnecting and moving forward; everyone there that morning will listen to the shofar as it blasts its message of pain and life and, afterward, as there almost always is, there will be a kiddush. “The presentations will be short, and we will weave them together with music and reflection and spirit, so that we can re-member to re-solidify and re-strengthen our sense of being bound to others,” Rabbi Lewittes said.

“The idea is to understand that these stories all are part of our story. We talk about being written in the book of life, and we have to understand that these stories are integral to our sense of self.” There are so many stories — some we write ourselves, some are written around us, and some exclude us entirely. “Sometimes our stories can alienate us from others, and we need the mindfulness to reweave them together,” Rabbi Lewittes said.

“I am asking people who can share their personal stories as a source of action and hope, not just a replay of despair and pain. It is the personal recollection of the past — and that is what Judaism understands memory to be.”

The effect of sitting in nature to listen to these stories is as profound as the stories themselves, Rabbi Lewittes suggested. Because another aspect of Rosh Hashanah is “Hayom harat olam” — the day the world was created, and so the world’s birthday — nature is the logical place to celebrate that birthday. Nature’s own cathedrals came into being long before the human-made structures were erected. And then there is water as the source of life, and the sounds it makes as it roars or rushes or trickles by are deeply soothing.

“Being surrounded by trees and hearing their rustling reminds us that we are not the only beings on earth,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “It reminds us of the humility with which we have to live, and that there are many other aspects of life that demand our compassion and healing.”

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the late  18th century chasidic mystic whose grave draws many Jewish pilgrims to Uman, in Ukraine, at exactly this time of year, wrote “Songs of the Grasses,” about “getting lost in nature as a pathway to being found,” Rabbi Lewittes said.

“Nature is the most elemental place to gather in order to touch and be touched,” she said.


Who: Rabbi Adina Lewittes and Sha’ar Communities

What: Offer second-day Rosh Hashanah services

Where: At the Alpine Boat Basin Pavilion in Alpine

When: On September 11 at 10 a.m.

For tickets and more information: Email shaarholidays@gmail.com, call Lisa Kasdan at (201) 281-4988, or go to www.shaarcommunities.org.

Also: Tickets are necessary and seating is limited.

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