New beginnings as Jews usher in the High Holy Days

Next week, as Jews usher in the High Holy Days with Rosh Hashana, synagogues in Charlotte and around the world will fill to capacity – and then some.

Temple Or Olam, meanwhile, will observe the Jewish New Year in rented church space in University City. And though it, too, is expecting a bump in turnout, its membership numbers – 40 families, or about 120 people – hardly rival the large Reform and Conservative Jewish congregations in Shalom Park.

Still, leaders at Temple Or Olam say this community affiliated with ALEPH – the Alliance for Jewish Renewal – will welcome the birthday of the world, or Year 5775 on the Jewish calendar. And with a diversity and a depth that they say makes them stand out.

“One thing that makes our community highly unusual,” said Rabbi Barbara Thiede, 55, “is that everybody knows we’re going to go on a journey on the High Holy Days, an intentional journey in search of who we are.”

Rosh Hashana marks the start of these 10 Days of Awe, a period of repentance and introspection that culminates on Oct. 4 with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The anticipation of new beginnings that comes with Rosh Hashana will also have special meaning this year for those at Temple Or Olam: After 10 years in Concord, they’ve moved to Charlotte – a more central location for their congregants, who live all over the region.

So, at sundown on Wednesday night, the start of Rosh Hashanah, they’ll gather in a new sacred space – Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church, with its wall of windows that look out into a wooded area – and worship:

“We want to make it real, not rote,” said Thiede. “It’s easy to get patterned, routine. That’s devoutly to be avoided.”

“We all know that this is the time, when we make the shofar call, to ask who are you?” Thiede said. “Who have you been in the last year? Who do you want to be in the next year?”

‘Baby of Judaism’

The Jewish Renewal movement, which had its beginnings in the 1970s, is “the baby of Judaism,” Thiede says, “though it’s very old in what it taps into.”

That includes ancient Jewish traditions of meditation, mysticism, music, chanting and dancing, but also other, more diverse touches such as journaling and storytelling. All are designed to focus on direct spiritual experience.

It stresses gender equality and, in the case of Temle Or Olam, offers young people the chance to be creative with their Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah – Jewish coming of age rituals. In addition to leading some prayers during service, one teen wrote a paper on Jews in China; another studied what the Biblical texts had to say about animals.

Some have referred to Jewish Renewal as the New Age version of Judaism. Those in the movement reject that description, and they resist calling Jewish Renewal a denomination.

Temple Or Olam, which offers Sabbath services on two Friday nights a month, is one of 37 or so communities across the country affiliated with ALEPH. Raleigh is home to another, Yavneh, named for a city in Israel that rabbinic tradition holds was once a center for Jewish renewal.

And the meaning of Temple Or Olam? In Hebrew, “Or” evokes both light and enlightenment. And “Olam” means world or eternity. Hence, Thiede said, the temple sees its mission as both refracting the light of Jewish tradition and renewing it for this modern age.

The virtues of being small

Dr. Earl Greenwald, a retired surgeon, joined Temple Or Olam nearly five years ago. Now he’s president.

In an age when religious leaders often focus on growth and bigger buildings, Greenwald, 74, speaks about the virtues of being a small congregation that’s unburdened by construction or maintenance costs.

“Everybody knows everybody,” Greenwald said. “It’s a family and everybody knows the rabbi.”

Being such a small, close-knit congregation can bring a richer appreciation of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, he said. “There’s this sense of coming together on the High Holy Days,” he said. “We’re not just individuals.”

Thiede said some people are looking for what Temple Or Olam can provide – especially during this sacred time.

“There are Jews who are searching desperately for connectivity, for an intentional community,” she said. “I don’t think it’s easy to be spiritually satisfied when you’re anonymous. … (At Temple Or Olam), I know their lives and I want to be able to be their spiritual companion.”