Ready, set, Yom Tov

Most people wouldn’t dare run a marathon without training, and yet many Jews show up for synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — a religious marathon of sorts — without so much as running a metaphorical mile in preparation.

“Your effort is directly related to your result. If all you do is show up and sit there passively, well, why would you think you’d get something out of that?” said Rabbi Shalom Bochner of Santa Cruz Hillel.

“So many people say, ‘The holidays didn’t mean anything to me.’ And I say, ‘Well, what did you do to make them meaningful?'”

But this is not about guilt — so forget what you didn’t do last year, or the five before that. This is about what you can do this year.

Before the Jewish New Year begins at sundown Wednesday, Sept. 12, consider asking yourself: What can I do differently this year to make the High Holy Days mean something?

“The High Holy Days can either be a meaningless activity we endure, or something that adds an incredible depth to the day, the season and hopefully our whole lives,” Bochner said. “I prefer to think of it as a spiritual tune-up for our whole existence, not an exercise in counting pages.”

Rosh Hashanah begins on the last day of the month of Elul.

Think of Elul as a spiritual tax season, with 29 days to take an inventory of your life — spiritual, professional, interpersonal, intellectual.

At Elul’s core is teshuvah. The Hebrew word usually translates as “repentance,” a word that requires serious examination of past shortcomings. But that’s an incomplete understanding of teshuvah. It also means “returning,” as in returning to God, mending friendships or living healthier. Teshuvah recognizes that the past cannot be changed, but can be instructive in how we shape our future.

Rabbi Katie Mizrahi also likes to think of teshuvah as simply “turning.” Mizrahi, of San Francisco’s Congregation Or Shalom, is one of many rabbis in the Bay Area who has led or will lead spiritual-prep workshops at their synagogues this year.

“Sometimes you just need to stay where you are and turn, changing your direction or perspective,” she said during a class Aug. 28. “We can defeat ourselves when we imagine our goals are so far away from us.”

Before considering what you can do to make the holidays more meaningful — and by proxy the coming year a little different and better — it’s also important to think about why you should do anything at all.

Wendie Bernstein Lash, co-director of the Redwood City-based Yedidya Center for Spiritual Direction, recalls how for years being in synagogue on Yom Kippur felt “excrutiating.” Then, she began to learn more about Judaism and Elul, and practicing what tradition suggests. She mentally prepared — studying, reading and meditating. As a result, her synagogue experience was transformed.

“If people aren’t preparing, it can be a very jarring experience. All of a sudden, you have to be clear about, ‘What haven’t I done right? Who do I need to make amends to?’ It’s got this urgency, this rush about it,” she said.

“Now I know it’s coming, so it’s not an emotional shock. This change stuff is really difficult, it doesn’t happen overnight. We need time to think about it.”

Bay Area rabbis and educators stress that there is no right or wrong way to prepare for the holidays — what matters most is finding something that’s personally meaningful.

“There is such a wide range of Jewish expression. Go and resample the salad bar of Jewish life, and try a different dish this time,” Bochner said.

Josh Strulowitz, rabbi at the Modern Orthodox Adath Israel in San Francisco, recommends simply reading the prayer book before the holidays. Understanding the prayers on a deeper level will inspire introspection, he said.

“For some people, it’s really important to ask questions: What is my relationship with HaShem? What’s holding me back from having that relationship? What questions do I want to ask God?” Strulowitz said.

Prayer not for you? No big deal.

Bochner of Santa Cruz points to a friend who, every Yom Kippur, goes on an all-day hike — fasting the entire time — and then jumps into the Pacific when the sun begins to set.

Bochner himself prefers to blow the shofar every morning during the month of Elul.

Rabbis encourage people to think about what has inspired an “aha!” moment in the past, and practice that in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Some suggestions:

n Meditate each morning about your shortcomings in the past year and your goals for the new one.

n Find a friend, rabbi or teacher with whom you can openly discuss tough issues.

n Register for a spiritual retreat, or create your own and invite friends or family. It can last an hour or a day, and can take place anywhere, even in your backyard.

n Write in a daily journal; let your own words be a spiritual guide.

n Go on a quiet hike, and when you reach a scenic spot, sit down to read a prayer book or Jewish stories that you’ve brought along.

Bochner recommends “Days of Awe” by Shmuel Agnon, which he reads every year.

Menachem Creditor, the rabbi at Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom, each year rereads “Open Closed Open,” a collection of poetry by Israeli writer Yehudah Amichai.

Creditor also recommends listening to (or playing or singing) Jewish music. As a member of the Jewish folk group Shirav, he personally finds music deeply spiritual, he said.

Both rabbis encourage patience.

“Mindful practice is gradually cultivated over time, no matter what your starting point,” Creditor said.

And after the mental preparation, it is critical to act: Think about dented or broken relationships, and approach those people to mend things.

“Yom Kippur has its limits,” Mizrahi said. “If something is going on between you and another person, God can’t do anything about that … Atoning to God can give you strength to atone to your fellow man.”

And don’t be too hard on yourself, rabbis say. Too much self-criticism can only deepen a wound (whether it’s your own or in relationship with another person) and make healing more difficult.

“The most important ingredient — we need to have a direction,” Bochner said. “We need to say, ‘This year, I’m working on X.’ But it’s gotta be something real and doable. Maybe you’ll wake up with more appreciation, or tell people close to you that you love them. Recycle, walk more, live healthier.

“But before you start that process, first celebrate your accomplishments. We’re good at guilt, and we need to get better at celebration.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.