Juneau Jewish Community observes Yom Kippur

Posted: Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Forgiveness from God, forgiveness from others, honesty in the corporate world and peace in the Middle East were the themes this year as the Juneau Jewish Community celebrated Yom Kippur on Sunday and Monday in the Northern Light United Church.

Rabbi Hillel Gamoran of Seattle officiated the services for the holiday, among the holiest in the Jewish year.

Gamoran, who teaches for the University of Washington and writes in the field of Jewish law and history, has officiated the high holiday services in Juneau for the past three years.

"You really have to work hard to keep Judaism alive here in Juneau," Gamoran said. "The only Jewish life that you have here is what the community creates. ... It's a greater challenge to the Jews of Juneau than it is elsewhere, but anything that you put a lot into, you get more out of."

Gamoran said two-thirds of the Yom Kippur services were in English, and the rest were in Hebrew.

"I'm a reform rabbi and our thought is that if you don't understand the meaning of a prayer, it's not from the heart," Gamoran said. He discussed honesty and the situation in Israel during services.

"Of all the prayers we're going to pray this year, our most fervent will be that people (in the Middle East) learn to resolve disputes peacefully," Gamoran said.

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, falls 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The two high holidays, as they are called, are separated by the Days of Awe, during which Jews are required to ask forgiveness of people they have wronged during the past year, said Jesse Kiehl, board chairman for the Juneau Jewish Community.

"The theory is you can't just go ask God for forgiveness for punching someone in the nose, you have to go and ask forgiveness from the person you punched," Kiehl said. "It's harder than it sounds, and it sounds pretty hard."

Yom Kippur involves a fast of more than 25 hours, this year from sundown Sunday to Monday evening. Members of the community broke the fast Tuesday night at a potluck at Northern Light.

Kiehl estimated the Juneau Jewish Community has about 100 members, most of whom are reform Jews.

"I don't know anybody in Juneau I think of as a particularly orthodox Jew," Kiehl said, referring to the more traditional branch of Judaism. "We have fewer factions than the various Christian communities, but we need to work with everyone in town who wants to observe Judaism."

Although there is no permanent rabbi in Juneau, Kiehl said the community is fairly active.

"We do a remarkable amount for a community our size - we hold a week-long summer camp, we bring up speakers, we participate in all kinds of community events, we have retreats, a women's book club, a youth group and holiday celebrations that come to as many as 10 a year," he said.

Kiehl said a big challenge for Jews in Juneau is the lack of public knowledge of Jewish holidays.

"If you lived in New York, nobody would ask why you weren't at work on Monday," Kiehl said. "People would know that it's Yom Kippur. And if you were in Israel, everyone would be tremendously surprised, many of them outraged, if you went to work on Monday. It just isn't done."

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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