Tashlikh Along the Mississippi 2008A 2008 Tashlikh ceremony is performed on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota. (photo: GSankary)

We’re now on the other side of the Days of Awe — the ten-day period starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. This year I participated in a Tashlikh ceremony for the first time since my childhood Hebrew school days. Tashlikh (also referred to as Tashlich) is a ritual of reflection and repentance where people throw shards of bread gather into a flowing body flowing water, symbolically casting off their sins from the previous year.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, as joggers and power walkers streamed by, I gathered with a few others by a lake in Minneapolis to recite prayers and sing songs including one of my favorite melodies, Avinu Malkeinu. Later that evening, a larger group of mostly strangers assembled for a Rosh Hashanah potluck featuring sweet kosher wine and home-baked challah. I learned about both of these events online and decided to show up even though I didn’t know anyone. With my family back on the East Coast, I didn’t want to experience the High Holy Days alone.

To break the ice, we introduced ourselves along with the name of a Jewish food that shared the first letter of our first name. When my turn came, I couldn’t think of anything. The group rescued me with “noodle kugel.” I wasn’t the only one who got stuck. A Unitarian woman needed the group to brainstorm a Jewish food for her too.

The experience of these rituals surfaced a mix of emotions. It was nice having a place to go on Rosh Hashanah where I was received with openness and warmth. And yet, I didn’t feel exactly at home. In theory, I feel like I should experience a meaningful bond with other Jewish people based on the fact of our shared Jewishness but, in practice, it’s not necessarily enough.

I didn’t grow up reciting prayers or regularly attending services (or even eating noodle kugel for that matter, although my mother makes a mean matzoh ball soup). I’m embarrassed by my hazy recollections of the rituals and prayers and my inability to read Hebrew, much less make out the transliterations. I know that no one is judging me, but it’s difficult to feel estranged in situations that should be like a kind homecoming.

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This really resonates for me. I spent my childhood in the USSR, and, though I tried through my high school years to adopt the tradition of my birth, I just found it hard and somewhat alienating. I too am embarrassed by my poor knowledge of the liturgy and essential inability to read Hebrew. But I do wonder how much of this is my internal self-judgment as opposed to silent messages from the community. My bet is that more than half comes from me. Yet there it is...

Having recently moved into a new community, I understand the feeling of estrangement at the High Holy Days, and, for me, Shabbat. I hope the writer finds her place among our people and feels welcome and "a part of" next year.

I understand Nancy's feelings of apart-ness. Her recounting of her own experience reflects some of my own. I sometimes think these "ice breakers" intended to open people to feeling welcome and comfortable have the opposite effect because it doesn't hit the mark in terms of common experience. I think many of us find our way to our Jewish communities because we want to experience the sameness and to have what is familiar to us (our Jewishness) be our spiritual pathway. Since in any community everyone's backgrounds and experiences are different, it's hard to hit a common ground for everyone. For me....it has mostly been the liturgy and the readings that pull me in...and create the feeling of returning.

There are so many people who cannot read Hebrew or understand Hebrew. Find a community where they transliterate all the prayers and songs. Even though you may still feel bothered by the fact that you are using the transliteration, I can guarantee you that more people are using it than you would think. This uncomfortable feeling around Hebrew keeps people away from shul, but don't let it! Just because we are all Jews does not mean that we will instantly find community together. We all have vastly different experiences, but keep looking, you will find the one that feels right for you. I converted to Judaism about 11 years ago and I worried that I didn't have the camp experiences, and the cultural experiences. I had to create my own memories and begin from scratch. I got there, and so will you! I still feel uncomfortable at times, but I realized that I would feel that way in many situations regardless of my connection to that community. The more you go and do, the more familiar it feels! I wish you a very sweet new year!

FOLLOW UP:We did this as the children's semorn instead of a benediction. I explained it to the kids and then had them pass out stones to the congregation. We used smooth stones I collected from the beach. FUTURE SERMON ILLUSTRATION:When I went to throw my own sin-stone back into the ocean, I returned to the beach where we had collected the stones and gave it toss. It was such a powerful moment that when I looked down at my feet and saw more stones, I started picking up more stones and tossing them with a short prayer. After about a dozen stones I chuckled to myself thinking, I could be there all day, and all night, and all the next day throwing my stones away to God. Thank you God for bringing this to my attention, and reminding me that Jesus is the rock of my salvation.