6660 Cowles Mountain Boulevard, San Carlos
Two armed security guards stood at the ticket-check tent outside the synagogue before the Yom Kippur evening service. Inside, things were more jovial: a man assigned to keep things reverently hushed had fashioned a title for himself: “Shusher.” He warned me that “we’re all fasting,” so there would be no food for me to judge. He also told me that “Most Jews who belong to a synagogue are less observant than the synagogue itself,” having joined, more often than not, to please family. Or at least, that’s how it used to be: “The Baby Boomers are the last generation where we go from a more observant generation to a less observant one. The kids today being raised in a certain synagogue have, for the most part, determined that that’s the life that they’re going to lead — complete.” The deaths of parents allowed Boomers to ease up on observance: “They were saying, ‘Oh, thank God, we don’t have to do this anymore.’ But the younger kids are saying, ‘If we’re not doing that, what are we doing? We’re not running away from it anymore.’” By 6:10, the square sanctuary at this conservative synagogue was packed — not just the principal space but also a sizable alcove behind it.
Much of the evening Kol Nidre service was to be given over to self-accusation and repentance, but before twilight darkened the stained glass menorah along one wall, a woman read “We stand before our God,” a proclamation first made in the synagogues of Germany on Kol Nidre in 1935. It expressed “contempt for the lies concerning us and the defamation of our religion and its testimonies.... Who made known to the world the mystery of the Eternal, the One God? Who taught the world respect for the human being, created in the image of God? In all this we see manifest the spirit of the prophets, the divine revelation to the Jewish people.” (The defamation, presumably, concerned the Kol Nidre prayer itself, sung again and again in Hebrew by the acrobatically voiced cantor: “All vows, oaths, and promises which we made to God from last Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur and were not able to fulfill, may all such vows between ourselves and God be annulled.”) A pale gray box on the right housed a Torah rescued from a city in Poland; gold letters declared the shrine, “In loving memory of the six million martyrs.”
Men and women processed forward with other copies of the Torah, and the congregation massed toward the aisles so they could touch their shawls and books to the scrolls. After the Kol Nidre, the scrolls took their place behind the doors of the ark at the front of the sanctuary, its tall doors surrounded by stained glass depicting the burning bush.
During prayers of special significance, the people stood and the doors of the ark were opened. One such was the Avinu Malkenu: “Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You.... Our Father, our King, hear us, pity us, and spare us.... Our Father, our king, act for Your sake if not for ours.” This imploring came after repeated and exhaustive confessions of sin: confessions of hardened hearts, hatred, perversity, dishonesty, evil talk, inordinate pleasures of the flesh, and on and on, in lists of great precision and rigor. “For all these sins,” sang the congregation (again in Hebrew), “O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” Later, they prayed numerous variations on the triplet, “May our penitence rise to You at nightfall, our pardon come before You in the morning, and our cry be heard by You at dusk.” Prayer — repetitive and particular, praising and imploring, private and communal — was, in fact, the service’s dominant feature. Even the singing (and there was plenty) came across more as sung prayer than songs.
Rabbi Rosenthal’s address to the congregation tweaked the campaign season’s message of change, turning it from a “transitive” to a “reflexive” notion. Outside of a totalitarian regime, he said, “It is simply impossible to make other human beings conform to your will.... The only person that any of us is ever able to change is ourselves.” On Yom Kippur, “we don’t focus on others; we focus on our own failures, and apologize.” But change, while personal, was not to be regarded as private. “As Rabbi Hillel asked, ‘If I am only for myself, what am I?’ We do have a Jewish obligation to change the world. But what does our tradition say to effect this change? We don’t do it with power or force. ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts. Jews change and heal the world not by forcing someone to do what we want, but through our own gifts of sacrifice...as God clothes the naked, we should clothe the naked...visit the sick...comfort those who mourn...bury the dead...be faithful and loving.”
Tifereth Israel Synagogue
Denomination: Jewish (conservative)
Address: 6660 Cowles Mountain Boulevard, San Carlos, 619-697-6001
Founded locally: 1905
Senior pastor: Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal
Congregation size: 420 households
Staff size: n/a
Sunday school enrollment: n/a
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: n/a
Dress: formal to semiformal
Sunday worship: Friday Kabbalat Shabbat service, 6:15 p.m.; Saturday Shabbat service, 9:15 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: two hours