You wouldn’t know it by the temperature or colorful foliage, but fall has officially arrived in the Golden Isles. While it may not be the autumn of New England or even North Georgia, there is a sense that something has shifted. The light, for instance, moves differently in the late afternoon, drawing in the dark sooner than the summer days.
Rachael Bregman feels it too. The rabbi at Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick always notices the way the fall brings in a different vibe, regardless of the weather. But, for Bregman and her congregation, it is not the season alone that’s changing, it’s the year.
Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown Sunday, marks the Jewish new year. It is a joyous occasion, celebrated by the exchanges of “Shana Tova” or “Happy New Year,” as well as the eating of honey cake, brisket, apples and tzimmes (a mixture of sweet potatoes, plums and carrots) — all of these foods symbolize a prosperous future. But more than anything, the beginning of the period known in the Jewish faith as the High Holy Days emphasizes rebirth and renewal.
“The Jewish new year is a time for rejoicing and celebration, but also for new hope and rebirth. We often think of ways to transform ourselves, very much like the secular new year where you make resolutions. We look at how we can make ourselves, our community and our world better,” Bregman explained.
“But, I think this year, it feels a little different in terms of the sense of urgency. When I’ve talked to my colleagues around the country, everyone seems to be navigating the same questions one way or another, which is, ‘How do we make this better?’ I think there’s an overwhelming sense within all faith groups of worry, sadness, loneliness and concern. I think we’re all trying to speak to that ... in a more practical way than five or 10 years ago.”
That is the focus for Bregman this year. She said that it is a time to reflect on the past year and what could be improve upon moving forward.
“It’s very intentional soul work. You spend a lot of time getting in touch with people you may have wronged or who may have hurt you. You try to make amends. We do important rituals around our community too but it is really all about growth, which can be challenging,” Bregman said.
Following Rosh Hashanah, there is a 10 day period where Jews reflect, make amends and work toward positive change. Then, comes Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. A solemn occasion, the fast day is marked by prayer and repentance.
“It’s a day of confession and fasting. It’s a day to really focus on your spiritual growth and transformation. It’s full of metaphor around death and using death as a reminder of how we want to live our lives. You think, ‘OK if this was my last day, how would I want to live and what would I have done differently. Then you can take that wish and try to actualize it going forward,’” she said.
While the High Holy days are Jewish observances, Bregman feels the universality of the themes speaks to humanity as a whole. Regardless of one’s background or faith, the ideas of repentance, rebirth and positive transformation are familiar to all.
“It’s a real sense of renewal that comes this time of year that is universal. Our children go back to school and the summer comes to an end. It feels very different for all of us. The world is changing and shifting in a way in which all humans can tune into. It’s a moment of rebirth where everybody can start fresh,” she said. “It’s a time to think about how we may have missed the mark and how we want to do better going forward.”
For those looking to take the occasion to make some personal changes, Bregman encourages cultivating a sense of compassion. She also suggests reaching out to loved ones to help the resolutions take hold.
As the transformation unfolds, periodic re-evaluation is key. For Jews, there are specific holidays and occasions that can serve as sign posts for progress. Similar milestones can also be set for those who are simply looking to make adjustments in their lives.
“We have Rosh Hashanah in September then January, which is not that far away, so that’s another good time to check in. Then for us, we have Passover and Shavuot, which is the Jewish Pentecost,” she said. “It’s about every three months.”
For Bregman, approaching the High Holy Days or any type of personal transformation is about proceeding with a sense of purpose but also one of acceptance. Moving forward in grace, she notes, is a way to generate lasting change.
“It’s important to approach it in a really self-compassionate and self-loving way. For this process, it’s good to invite loved ones in who can help hold you accountable. It’s important to do a little bit at a time. Take it step by step, knowing that your own healing and renewal echoes and that energy reverberates out into the whole world,” she said.