Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the Jewish High Holy Days, known as Yamim Ha-Noraim or "Days of Awe" in Hebrew. The Holy Days end with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. This year, Yom Kippur begins Friday night, Sept. 28, and ends the next night.
"This whole season is one of spiritualism, or Teshuvah," which in Hebrew means repentance and self-searching, said Rabbi Sandra Berliner, who will be the cantor at a special Rosh Hashanah service tonight. "It's a happy and joyous time, and it's a solemn time."
For the estimated 1,700 Soviet Jews who have resettled this year in Philadelphia, this Rosh Hashanah is a particularly special one.
They were barred from practicing their faith in the Soviet Union, so Rosh Hashanah is one of the first religious holidays they've been able to celebrate in years, if not their entire lives, said Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.
A special service for them will be held at 8 tonight at the David Newman Senior Center of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia, near Bustleton Avenue. Another service will be held there tomorrow at 9:30 a.m.
The service is free and open to all Soviet Jews. Following the service will be a kiddush of wine, juice and cake, Berliner said.
Berliner will be the cantor. Leading the services will be Rabbi Morton Levine, former director of Judaic outreach for Hillel of Greater Philadelphia. Levine and Berliner will conduct the services in Hebrew and English, and they will be translated into Russian by Leon Friedman, a writer and professional translator.
Also helping the emigres to better understand the service will be prayer books in Russian, Berliner said. The prayer book used on Rosh Hashanah is called Mahzor.
For the several hundred emigres expected to attend each service, the holiday marks their first formal introduction to Judaism, Hirsh said. Many have not set foot in a synagogue in their lives, he said.
"Every year after the service, someone comes up to the rabbi and says they had not been to a service in 30, 40 years," Hirsh said. "It is very emotional."
The aim of the special service - held in their own language and with their own countrymen - is to make the emigres feel more comfortable, Hirsh said. With time, the hope is that they will join their own synagogues and become practicing Jews, he said.
"This is a doorway to the Jewish community," Hirsh said.