Shmuel Herzfeldgrew up in New YorkCity and moved to D.C. in 2004 to be the rabbi of Ohev Sholom, also known as the National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox congregation in Washington. He spoke to The Washington Examiner about the Jewish High Holy Days and what they mean for his congregation of more than 300 families.
Why is Yom Kippur considered the holiest day in Judaism?
Yom Kippur is the day considered the holiest because it's the day where our sins are forgiven. It's a very special day. Normally, when one does something wrong it's not necessarily forgiven. But we believe if we repent and ask forgiveness from God, then on Yom Kippur we will be forgiven. There's spiritual power to the day itself.
When I was growing up, I always thought that Yom Kippur was a sad day, but when I became a rabbi, I started to realize that Yom Kippur is actually the happiest day, because it's the day we're all given a second chance, we're forgiven, we have a chance to make it right. All of us make mistakes in our lives and say, "Oh, I wish I could do that over again." Well, Yom Kippur is the day where we get a chance to do that over again; we get a clean slate.
What's going on in your heart during the High Holy Days?
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, what I'm trying to do is come closer to God by working on aspects of my personality by making commitments to God that I'm going to try to improve in certain areas in the coming year. It's a time of heightened spiritual intensity.
What are the lessons you would like your congregation to take from Yom Kippur this year?
This year, I'm printing up rain ponchos that say, "Shul. Weather or not." "Shul" means "synagogue." The message is: Sometimes when it rains, people don't do something, but when we make a commitment, we follow through. That's a message I think is very important. We are able to accomplish great things by keeping our commitments. The "schtick" -- a Yiddish word for "a cute little thing" -- will hopefully remind them that their commitment to whatever happens in life is not dependent on whether it rains or not.
Your synagogue hosted a "birthday party for the world" featuring a moonbounce and other activities before Rosh Hashanah. Do you enjoy finding creative ways to connect people with Judaism?
Judaism is very serious and very important and very meaningful and very spiritual. But we should have fun worshipping God and fun practicing it and fun preaching it. So if we can bring a little more fun into people's lives and teach in a fun manner, then great. I try to bring a smile to people's faces when they come into synagogue.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
I believe that God is the definition of kindness and of goodness, and our role in life is to be godlike in our actions, meaning we need to do acts of kindness and goodness. The more acts of kindness and goodness we do in this world, the closer we are to being godlike. That is our role.
- Liz Essley