For American Jews, Yom Kippur observance focusing on terrorism as well as confession of sin

Thursday, September 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The most solemn day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, normally focuses closely on confession of sin and reconciliation with God.

But the 25-hour period of fasting and prayer that began Wednesday couldn't avoid the nation's obvious preoccupation.

Larry Sherman, a member of North Shore Congregation in Glencoe, Ill., expressed the mood of many: ``I can't get it out of my mind. It's hard to focus on anything but what happened.''

At Manhattan's Jacob Javits Center, where Congregation Beth Simchat Torah held services, Harvey Federman admitted, ``I don't know if I'm coming here looking for any answers. I'm looking for a sense of comfort and knowing you can continue.''

``It's not just a Day of Atonement. It's trying to gain perspective on your life,'' said psychiatrist Michael Bennett, attending worship at Boston's Temple Israel.

And as crowds streamed past an outsize American flag at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, grandmother Harriett Lehman said somberly, ``We're the fortunate ones, aren't we, that we're standing here and can go inside. I just thank God that we're still alive.''

The Sept. 11 attacks ``required a wholesale change of direction for us,'' said Rabbi Kenneth Chasen of Westchester Reform Temple in suburban Scarsdale, N.Y., which lost two congregants. He said worship would acknowledge worshippers' grief while maintaining the age-old emphasis on ``the humility of working to improve ourselves.''

Congregation Ohev Shalom in Orlando, Fla., preserved the same balance. Said Rabbi Aaron Rubinger: ``I'm a little hesitant to allow the terrorists to hijack the High Holy Days.''

In his sermon Wednesday night at Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., Orthodox Rabbi Marc Schneier said that two weeks after such destruction ``many of us are overcome by guilt as we try to return to our daily routines.'' But, he assured them, ``pain no less than pleasure is transient.''

Schneier, who is president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, said in his Thursday discourse that contrition _ in the current situation, sorrow that warnings about terrorism were ignored _ must be followed by commitment to change, ``the free world's determination and vigilance to eliminate the evils of terrorism.''

Thursday's mourning ritual, which speaks of a book with the names of who shall live and who shall die, is ``a very difficult thing to sit through'' for many, even in an ordinary year, said Sherry Birnbaum, who has talked with many grieving families as a counselor at Westchester Jewish Community Services in Hartsdale, N.Y.

Now, she said, ``it will be excruciating.''

In Flossmoore, Ill., near Chicago, Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus said that at Rosh Hashana she spoke about death, telling congregants that ``we can't control the time or manner of our death, but we can control how we live our lives.'' On Yom Kippur? ``I'm not really ready to speak about the attacks much more.''

Synagogues have taken other steps to mark these unusual High Holy Days. Schneier's congregation, for instance, replaced the usual fund-raising drive for the synagogue with a campaign that raised $80,000 to replace a fire truck that was destroyed when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

Judaism's High Holy Days began with Rosh Hashana, the New Year, six days after the attacks, with the period of reflection concluding on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.