Thoughts After the Closing of the Gates

We’ve come through the other side of the High Holy Days and hopefully we’ve done what was needed. We said we’re sorry to those we’ve wronged and we’ve asked forgiveness from the One who forgives. We’ve stood as a people and poured out our hearts as a community. After all that we’ve done and all that we’ve reflected on, here we are at 5777. We’re ready and we’re willing because we’ve said so and our words matter. We’re ready and we’re willing because we told Gd that we were and although we’ve asked for unfulfilled promises to be forgiven, we’d rather see them fulfilled. We’re imperfect, yes. Imperfect but unbroken.

This year, our family had the pleasure of seeing many different sides to the High Holy Days. At Temple Beth Shalom in Austin, I joined with a trio of young folks to lead a standing room only Rosh Hashanah service held inside an Episcopal Church. Storahtelling and joyous singing was alive and well with those youth! The church was excited to play host for the service while the other services were held back at the synagogue. It was wild and fun and wonderful.

For Yom Kippur, I joined Congregation Emanu El in Houston for their Youth Service (held at a Presbyterian Church) and their afternoon service back at their own sanctuary. Aside from a surprise fire alarm (a basketball score-thingy caught fire somehow) and more than a few mic issues, we had a wonderful youth service. Barbara Loeser and I led a musical exodus from the building when the fire alarm rang out, singing and playing folks to the gathering place in the parking lot. Barbara nicknamed the service, “Against All Odds”. I should also note that nothing else caught fire and everyone (including the building) was ok.

The afternoon service was very different from any service I’ve been to. Rabbi Oren Hayon invited players from the renowned Alley Theater to perform a shortened version of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons”.  If you don’t know the play, I won’t spoil it for you but I will just say that it is very, very heavy. The actors did a beautiful job bringing the play to life and the choice to use it as part of Yom Kippur was brilliant. Barbara Loeser, Dee Dee Dochen, and myself provided the music that separated each act and closed the afternoon with a rendition of “I shall Be Released” by Mr. Bob Dylan.

Finally, we ended the day at our Synagogue in Clear Lake. Going from one side of Houston to the other is no small affair but we made it in time for Neilah and the surprising sound of Sephardic chanting. What a joy it was to see Ms. Nitsana Lazurus, eyes closed, pouring out everything into the prayers. My son was immediately moved and to see the joy in his face sent me smiling into the service that would give us a final moment before the gates together. Shaar Hashalom also brought student Cantor, Jennifer Rolnick, who sent prayers spiraling up with her incredible voice.

People ask me what kind of Jew I am. It’s a question I get a lot. “How do you identify?” It’s a question that I would love to be able to answer but I don’t know how other than to say “Jewish”. I don’t know what branch of Judaism I belong to. I’m finding that there are things I love and connect with everywhere I go. Every single community I visit and spend time with teaches me something different and I’ve made it a goal to heed the words of Ben Zoma and learn from everyone. One person asked if I was Sephardic or Ashkenazi and I told him that I was a convert. He asked me again which I was and when I said I didn’t know, he said that I had an ignorant Rabbi. I told him my Rabbi was anything BUT ignorant and maybe by not forcing me to choose, he did exactly what he knew I needed.

Every day, the Tree that we hold to seems to grow. New flowers bloom and the branches wind and weave. It’s the same tree and the same system of roots feeding a growing and expanding family all searching for constant meaning and connection. I think it’s beautiful and while I would love to say that I am one kind of Jew or another, I still don’t know how to answer that after four years. Each service I helped lead these High Holy Days was completely different with different folks and different intentions. Different sermons and different songs. Similar prayers but different styles. Some with instruments and some without. All were beautiful, all were Jewish, and all of them felt like home.

These High Holy Days have helped me settle into, and be ok with, the idea that I’m still searching for what kind of Jew I am. It’s a question I don’t know if I ever want to answer, maybe I don’t have to, and most likely I won’t. Every community has a different voice and each one has been a blessing to join and pray with.

To every community that welcomed me in this last year – thank you.

To the Rabbis who shared time, trust, and prayer –  thank you.

To all the friends who taught me so much – thank you.

To my wife for her endless kindness, love, and warmth – thank you.

To my son for his thoughtfulness, goodness, and wisdom – thank you.

May your 5777 be a year full of connection, sweetness, and all you are seeking.

– Joe


  1. Beautifully written Joe and perfect to read today as we leave Montana. Here, we spent incredible High Holiday services with the small but strong Jewish community of Butte, lead brilliantly, I might add , by our son, Daniel who served as the guest rabbi. I hope it is okay with you that I share your post with Daniel. Wishing you and your family a Happy, Healthy and Sweet New Year!


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