The synagogue members hammered stakes into the ground on a hot September afternoon, then draped each one with a t-shirt bearing the name of a person killed by gunshot. With each blow, they clanged out a memorial for a crime they did not commit.
And then they gathered for a prayer — and an apology.
“May we acknowledge threats, some of our own making, to those ideals,” they read aloud.
The scene at Temple Sinai in Northwest Washington on Sunday was one of many playing out across the Jewish world this season. During the Days of Awe, which begin Wednesday at sundown with Rosh Hashanah and conclude ten days later with Yom Kippur, Jews have always focused on repentance for all manner of personal transgressions, from lying to laziness. But this year, many American rabbis are urging their congregations to focus also on communal sins, leading to creative efforts to seek atonement for the crimes of the entire nation.
Synagogues across the country are adding readings to their services focused on racial justice. Rabbis are writing sermons on civic ills like xenophobia, voter suppression, and hate speech. Committees are making sure that members, including those who might only attend services at this one time of year, hear on that day about how they can volunteer for congregational social action projects.
At Temple Sinai, this activist surge meant putting up the memorial t-shirts just before the High Holy Days, part of the traveling exhibit Heeding God’s Call that moves from one house of worship to another. When synagogue members arrive at services this week, they’ll see the somber t-shirts outside and will be able to pick up flyers inside about how to join their fellow congregants in phone-banking to lobby against laws that would loosen restrictions on firearms.
Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser views this activism as a form of repentance, in keeping with the Jewish tradition of atonement at this season. “I think by doing this, we’re saying in a way, ‘We are sorry for the state of the world today.’ We need to do something about it,” he said. “We are all responsible. Even though I didn’t kill anybody with a gun this year — and I don’t think anybody in this congregation did — we are responsible. We’re all part of this community.”
The Washington Post