Heralding the High Holy Days
By Stephanie Helms
Las Vegas is home to about 100,000 Jewish residents who will gather this October to observe the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Along with other Jews around the world, it is a time for worship and prayer for God to grant everyone another year of health, prosperity and peace.
The most important and holiest days occur in the fall, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending 10 days later with Yom Kippur. The intermediary days are called “Yamim Noraim,” also known as the Days of Awe.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and first of the 10 High Holy Days, starts at sundown on Oct. 2 and heralds in the year 5777 on the Jewish calendar. Generations of Jews gather in their synagogues to hear the blast of the shofar, a ram’s horn that signals the ushering in of a new year, reminding them to return to their better selves. Apples and honey are eaten to symbolize a sweet new year, and everyone greets each other with wishes for “L’shanah tovah,” a good year.
Most congregations have a special prayer book reserved for the High Holy Days. Rabbi Malcolm Cohen of Temple Sinai, a diverse Reform synagogue in Summerlin, explained, “High Holy Days are particularly special because of our prayer book. In it, there are all kinds of creative material to allow for the different kinds of people who are entering that space. Those who are looking for traditional prayers, those who question the idea of God’s existence, those who are going through personal struggles; each person will hear something that speaks to them.”
Rosh Hashanah is fairly solemn, marked by rich music and powerful liturgy. Prayers are spoken and petitions for peace are made through song. “The music is elevated with a full chorus and additional musicians, and special melodies are sung that we only hear once each year during this time, like ‘Avinu Malkeinu,’” said cantorial soloist Heather Klein.
“Being in the choir at Temple Sinai is very spiritual and as we sing and lead the congregation in prayer, we all come together as one. I can’t imagine anything more special,” said chorus member Jackie Kolner.
All of this introspection and reflection culminates with the most important Jewish day of the year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a time to engage in meaningful prayer from sundown the night before through most of the next day. It is a time to confess sins against God and ask forgiveness for the offenses committed over the past year. In addition, most adults will fast, refraining from food or even water, for about 25 hours. After the day’s spiritual work is done, a joyful meal is shared with family and friends. Temple Sinai congregant Ilana Shapiro embraces food customs that have formed in her family over generations, toasting in the New Year with honey laced challah with raisins, savory brisket and honey cake.
Yom Kippur is a very serious day but one from which Jews emerge refreshed and renewed, ready to begin a fresh new year of being their best selves. Perhaps the most significant part of High Holy Days is the gathering of generations in continuance of Jewish traditions. Temple Sinai president Les Sherman shared, “The High Holy Days are a special time of prayer, music, reflection and learning. We come together with our biological and congregational families to reconnect, reflecting on the past year and renewing ourselves for the year to come.”