Sundown brings a fresh start for Jews

The county's synagogues use the High Holy Days as a way to reach out and build their congregations.

By EILEEN SCHULTE, Times Staff Writer
Published September 12, 2007

With the year 5768 fast approaching, the children at Congregation Beth Shalom happily prepared Tuesday by eating sliced apples dipped in honey, singing songs and blowing shofars made of aluminum foil and imagination.

"We celebrate the birthday of the world on Rosh Hashana," said Rabbi David Weizman, who leads the conservative synagogue with his wife, Rabbi Danielle Upbin, over the din of excited young voices.

During the High Holy Days, which begin at sundown today, Jews around the world pray for a good year, a long life and most importantly God's forgiveness, which one mischievous 3-year-old may need after dunking his friend's toy truck into a cup of apple juice Tuesday.

Rosh Hashana, which Jews believe is the beginning of God's annual judgment of humanity, begins the Ten Days of Penitence, which end on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Judaism teaches that this is the time God decides who will live and who will die in the coming year.

This week marks the first time that students at the preschool observed the occasion since it opened on Aug. 21 on the synagogue's campus at 1325 S Belcher Road in Clearwater.

Already, 12 students are signed up and more are expected. It is open to the community and interested parents can enroll their children at any time this year. The staff, which includes a visiting music teacher as well as other specialists, is led by religious school director Tami Wolf and preschool director Becky Shield.

Like many other temples and synagogues, Congregation Beth Shalom, which has about 275 families, is attempting to reach out to younger people to keep its membership vibrant and growing.

Another congregation, the Young Israel-Chabad of Pinellas County at 3696 Fisher Road in Palm Harbor, also is getting creative to attract unaffiliated Jews.

At Young Israel-Chabad, forget attending services with strangers. The 80-family Orthodox synagogue is offering $20 one year-memberships in honor of its 20th anniversary.

"We're hoping people will check us out and stay," said Rabbi Shalom Adler.

He said "being Jewish is a full-time occupation," and encourages people to become members rather than just attend services once or twice a year.

For Upbin's part, another key goal is to "bridge the social rift" between members whose children attend the Congregation Beth Shalom religious classes and those who attend the Pinellas County Jewish Day School, also in Clearwater.

To achieve that, Wolf said "we're doing a lot more with family programming."

For example, when the students read about Noah's Ark, all families, no matter which school their children attend, will be invited to go on a trip to the zoo.

When they are there, they might see a ram.

From one of those animals came a horn that was made into a shofar that Weizman blew for the children on Tuesday, much to their delight.

"You blow on it and it makes a sound to make you wake up," he told them.

The blast was loud and sharp. The children squealed and held their ears.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or 727 445-4153.