A few short days ago, dark clouds gathered over Temple Beth Tefiloh in Brunswick as Hurricane Irma loomed in the Atlantic. As the threat grew, Rabbi Rachael Bregman hurried to gather the most valuable objects from inside — its torahs.
The holy scriptures, which are all hundreds of years old, were her primary concern when preparing to evacuate days ahead of the storm. Bregman took several of the scrolls with her to North Carolina, while the president of the congregation minded the others and kept them safe.
In the days that followed, Bregman and her 2-year-old daughter spent time with a rabbi friend, but her thoughts never strayed far from Brunswick.
“Everyone is OK and the building is OK,” she said of the historic temple, erected in 1890.
When Bregman returns to the Golden Isles, she will shift her attention to the high holy days, two of the most important days in the Jewish faith — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Rosh Hashanah, which begins Wednesday, is traditionally held to be the day God opens the Book of Life to write down a person’s fate for the coming year. Yom Kippur is traditionally held as the date the book is sealed with God’s verdict inside.
More than anything, Bregman said, it is a period of self reflection and righting the wrongs of the previous year.
“The high holy days are the beginning of the new year in the Jewish calendar. From a spiritual standpoint, it is the highlight of the year,” she said.
Both observances held within a 10-day span, Bregman notes, are incredibly significant. The first, Rosh Hashanah, welcomes the beginning of the Jewish new year.
“You spend the month prior to Rosh Hashanah getting ready and getting spiritually prepared. You start taking account of your soul and really taking stock of what’s happened in the year that has gone by,” she said.
Much like the secular new year marked each January, it is a time to find ways to improve all aspects of one’s life.
“You look at who you are, and who you have been in this year and you try to find places where you could do better. It is all about becoming a better version of yourself. A lot of that work includes really taking time to look at your relationships — with yourself, with others and with God,” she said.
“It is time to make repairs any place where you have missed mark or maybe have not your done best,” she added. “You also go to those people that you have wronged and tell them that you are sorry for the things you’ve done that have hurt them.”
At Beth Tefiloh, congregants will gather at sundown Wednesday to hold services. Bregman will share scriptures, and true to tradition, the shofar — or ram’s horn — will be sounded.
“The shofar is usually associated with Rosh Hashanah. It is really beautiful to hear,” she said.
“It also a big part of the prayer service. It serves as a wake up call and reminder of all things that we need to do to improve ourselves. It helps you look around and think ‘where could I do a better job as a spouse, parent, child or friend? Where could I do a better job of being steward to the Earth?’”
Rosh Hashanah will end Thursday night, then 10 days later, on Sept. 30, the congregation will mark Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
“It is another part of this self reflection and spiritual growth. It is most commonly associated with fasting,” she said.
The holiest day in Judaism, it is a time of solemn repentance. While it is an observance in her faith, Bregman believes that everyone can benefit from the notions the occasion represent.
“The themes of the high holy days are universal. They are days like these in various cultures. The best example of course is New Year’s resolutions, where you do some self reflection and atone for things you’ve done,” she said.
“It is important from a religious and a cultural perspective to try to do better and work harder to be your best self. We are always looking for ways to improve. Whether you find that in a yoga studio, or a mosque, or a synagogue, or a church, wherever you find that, finding it is what is important. We are trying to find the things that we need to maximize our humanity ... that is the point.”
Of course, in light of recent natural disasters, Bregman understands that humanity has been tested. That, she notes, will be a topic featured in her sermons.
“For Rosh Hashanah, my sermon does look at the recent natural disasters and we will explore the question of the spiritual significance of these things and look at how we can make sense of these events in our world,” she said.