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Rosh Hashanah, Day One

9/29/2011
Rachel Adler-Golden

L'shana tova. I am Rachel Adler-Golden, President of Shir Hadash, and would like to welcome you to our High Holiday services. I'd like to extend a special welcome to our guests. Your presense enhances our celebration and we look forward to getting to know you as we move through the high holidays together. I hope that you will be inspired by them and come back again later in the year.

During this period of reflection and memory, we are reminded of the ongoing and dynamic relationship between our past, present and future. These themes have had a particular resonance for me this year, in large part due to a recent trip that my husband Steve and I took to Europe.

Earlier this year, my brother Ben called to tell me that he and his wife Lorrie were planning a trip to Europe in September, and to ask if Steve and I might like to come along. My initial thought was that we couldn't possibly go; we were already scheduled to travel to Europe in June – Steve was due to speak at a conference and I felt I needed to go along to carry his bags. How could we go again just a few months later?

And yet............ in thinking about it, my brother, now in his sixties, is still in great health, and although through the years we had spoken about vacationing together, we'd never done it.

And then there was Austria. I had spent three years there as a music student in my early 20s. It was supposed to have been just a single junior year abroad, but the combination of being far away from my own family's difficulties, the Austrian culture of support for all things related to classical music, and dirt cheap Austrian college tuition was very attractive. And for a time I considered living there permanently.

My boyfriend was also a music student, and our weekends and vacations were spent with his family on their farm, outside of a tiny town called Jagerberg, 25 miles from what was then the Yugoslavian border. As an American in rural Austria, I was quite a novelty, but was quickly accepted into the family. His mother in particular, took me into her heart, treating me as a daughter, at a time when I was unaware of just how much I needed it. At that time, my own mother, back in the States, was increasingly impaired by what we now know was Alzheimer's Disease.

Within a short period of time, I was drafted into service as Jagerberg's church organist. Although new to the organ, as someone who could play with both hands and a bit with my feet, I was considered quite a find. Richard's family knew that I was Jewish, although we hardly discussed it. One day his mom took me aside and with her face full of feeling, begged me to please not tell anyone else about it. That was 35 years ago. I last saw Richard and his family 18 years ago when Steve and I took our children to Europe.

During last year's annual Christmas phone call, Richard's mother, or Oma, as everyone now calls her, closed with "I'm 80 years old", and reading my thoughts, she added " will I ever see you again?" And so my bother's suggestion that we join him and his wife on their trip made even more sense and off we went to Europe for the second time within a few months.

Steve and I began with three days in Prague, one spent visiting the Jewish Ghetto, a small neighborhood containing six synagogues, the Jewish Town Hall and Jewish Cemetery. Space in the cemetery was so constrained, that Jews were obliged to bury their dead in layers, with the resulting gravestones two stories higher than the sidewalk running along side it. It is estimated that beneath the 12,000 overcrowded headstones, lie approximately 100,000 graves.

We then made our way to Jagerberg, and spent five wonderful days back on the farm. Eager to share some of my Jewish culture with Richard's family, I presented them with two books written in German, a Jewish cookbook and book of Jewish humor. We stayed in the new house with Richard's kid brother Erwin, now a middle aged man with a wife and four children, and a highly successful farming operation.

Oma, warm and loving as ever, was now moving more slowly, and grieving the loss of her husband not yet two years before from Alzheimer's Disease. Sitting across the kitchen table, we chatted about all kinds of things, including her late husband, children and mothering. She offered throughout a kind of encouragement and understanding so reminiscent of what I always imagined my own mother would have given me, had she and I had the opportunity to know one another as adults. I soaked up Oma's maternal warmth, keenly aware of just how precious a gift it was.

Near the end of our stay, after showing Oma photos on my laptop of our home and children, I told her about Shir Hadash. Using an English and Hebrew website, I chanted the first five verses of Genesis for her – first translating each verse into German, and then chanting the Hebrew. She was fascinated and wanted to hear more.

I explained to her that it was in Austria, particularly in Jagerberg, where I began to appreciate the beauty of a community coming together to celebrate holidays, observe life's seasons and milestones. It was there that I began to yearn for such a communal connection in my own life, within my own culture. In hindsight I can see that my time in Austria, of all places, had inspired me to become a much more active, connected and educated member of the Jewish community. She was so excited and gratified , and radiated such nachas!

Our European vacation ended with five glorious days in Paris with my brother and sister-in-law. We walked everywhere, talking, taking in the sights and of course thinking about how pleased our father would have been to see us there together. One of the highlights was a two hour, WW II walking tour around Paris. While sketching a rough map of Europe in the dirt at a local park, our tour guide Gil, a Jewish American who'd graduated from Brandeis University ten years ago, offered his opinion that the current generation of young Germans deserved the chance to create it's own present and future. As he put it "it's important to forgive, but not to forget."

The present that I live now, is very different from the one I imagined for myself 35 years ago when I was a young music student in Austria, and yet in many unexpected ways, it has been very much informed by my having been there.

In this season of reflection and renewal, I invite you to ponder your indidivual as well as our communal Jewish evolution. How do we take the best from our community's past and bring it successfully into our present and future? For those of you visiting today, I hope that you will be inspired to return, and make Shir Hadash part of your future as well. I also want to encourage guests to please pick up a donations envelope on the table outside and to please give as generously as you can. Your donations help Shir Hadash to provide these services and to move confidently into the future.

My wish is that as we move into the future, we all continue to grow, evolve and adapt, and to find love and inspiration wherever we are, in both expected and unexpected places. Shana Tova!