Chabad movement aims to make Jewish high holy days services free, open

mquillin@newsobserver.comAugust 30, 2013 

— As the high holy days approach, Rabbi Zalman Bluming wants Jews to feel so close to God, there isn’t even the thickness of a dollar bill between them.

So he reminds local followers that the annual Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Rohr Chabad in Chapel Hill and at other Chabad houses in the Triangle are free and open to all.

“There are too many barriers” to worship, the rabbi says, and the traditional model of limiting the seating in holiday services to dues-paying synagogue members leaves many people feeling locked out at the very time of the Jewish year when they need to feel the most included.

Rosh Hashanah begins this year after sundown on Sept. 4 and continues until sundown on Sept. 6. Yom Kippur this year runs from sundown Sept. 13 to sundown Sept. 14.

More than 65 percent of the Jewish community in the Triangle will not be at a synagogue this holiday season, Zalman says. And while it’s important for synagogues to have reliable financial support, “We need to also be deeply concerned about those who aren’t entering our sacred spaces, and we need to make sure we make it as easy and convenient … as possible so that they can engage.”

The services themselves are designed to be “user-friendly,” incorporating song, commentary on current issues and the use of English-Hebrew prayer books.

“According to Jewish tradition, on the Jewish New Year, the doors of heaven are open. God accepts prayers from everyone,” Bluming said. “The least we can do is open our doors as well, to the entire community.”

Just as the Christmas and Easter holidays bring full sanctuaries in Christian churches, services celebrating the Jewish New Year draw people who might not attend any other program all year.

Traditional synagogues, including Beth Meyer and Beth Shalom in Raleigh, provide tickets to high holy day services to dues-paying members and their families. Some make accommodations for students or military service members. Other guests may be asked to make a donation.

‘You try it’

The Chabad approach is different. Bluming likens it to a smartphone app, something the students from UNC and Duke who attend discussion groups at the Chabad house in Chapel Hill are familiar with.

“You try it out, see if it works for you, and hopefully you will want to invest in it,” he said.

The Chabad, or Lubavitch, movement traces its origins to an 18th-century Jewish mystical rabbi who sought to bridge the divisions between scholarly and illiterate Jews. Today, Chabad congregations may include Orthodox Jews, progressives and everyone in between.

Those who are members of synagogues also are welcome at the Chabad, Bluming says, and are invited to attend while they’re away from home on business, for college or to visit family.

Rohr Chabad, now in its 12th year, has seen its high holy days attendance grow each year, Bluming says, so that the congregation keeps having to move the celebrations to larger spaces. This year, services will be held at the new Carrboro Hampton Inn & Suites. He expects at least 250 people.

‘Like family’

Leanne Kaye will be there. A doctoral candidate studying nutrition at UNC, she has attended Rohr Chabad for about five years and says she loves the openness of the community she finds there.

“They really try to make you feel like family. They try to engage everyone, and meet everyone on their level of religiosity,” she said.

Kaye said she especially enjoys the high holidays – a time of renewal in the Jewish faith – because Chabad services encourage her to be both introspective and among those who share her faith traditions.

Those traditions include Jewish holiday foods, which members of the congregation and Bluming’s wife, Yehudis Bluming, will prepare for the celebration. She plans to bake more than 150 loaves of challah, she said, braided to represent man’s physicality and spirituality, and shaped in a circle to signify the completion of the past year and the hope of living a more holy life in the year to come.

Even those who don’t participate in worship the rest of the year want to be a part of the high holy days, Yehudis Bluming said, when the prayers, the music and the meals rekindle a sense of identity.

“It’s very powerful,” she said. “The songs are there inside of them, and they realize there is a joy in their identity, in being with people who are like-minded, who have the same heritage for 3,000 years. It’s a family feeling.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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