By Amy Wolff Sorter
Tiferet Israel Rabbi Shawn Zell tells a joke about a Jewish financial professional and his gentile secretary. This professional tells his secretary that the office will be closed during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. The secretary, unfamiliar with Rosh Hashanah, asks her boss if the Jewish people wear funny hats and sound noisemakers.
“The professional’s comment is, ‘you bet we do,’” Zell said, with a chuckle. And that, he added, is where the similarity between Rosh Hashanah and the secular New Year ends. Though both involve a change in calendar numbers, “in all seriousness, no two events could be more different in terms of focus, philosophy and attitude,” Zell commented.
Zell is not alone in his opinion when it comes to comparing and contrasting Rosh Hashanah with the secular New Year, as rabbis and lay leaders point out that the purpose of both events are vastly different.
“I have always been impressed with how much prayer and meditation goes into the secular new year,” Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville said, somewhat sarcastically. In a more serious vein, he continued. “With Rosh Hashanah, we’re not just letting the numbers turn to 5774 (this will occur on Sept. 5, 2013). There are 30 days of preparation time to spiritually prepare ourselves for the event.”
Cantor Sheri Allen with Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington agreed, pointing out that Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, can be likened to the effort used when it comes to studying for finals. Elul requires study, along with honest self-assessment, reflection and consideration of the tasks necessary to right wrongs.
The preparation for the secular new year? “A day of shopping for decorations, fabulous finger foods and champagne, then deciding which party to go to, or deciding it’s not even worth it to venture outside the safe confines of home,” Allen said.
Laura Seymour, Jewish Community Center of Dallas’ director of camping services, also suggests that there isn’t much to the secular New Year, short of a lot of partying. Furthermore, “the only connection I can really see to Rosh Hashanah is the New Year’s resolution,” she said. “But I don’t think those resolutions carry the same weight or are carried out with the same levels of commitment as what we vow during the Jewish new year.”
Not all are so skeptical about a potential connection between Rosh Hashanah and the secular New Year, however. Rafi Cohen, rabbi of Beth Torah in Richardson, said Rosh Hashanah is a time to rededicate oneself to the Jewish community and to make the push toward personal and educational growth. But the time between that rededication and Jan. 1 is filled with all kinds of activities and events, meaning people can stray from their vows.
As such, “the secular New Year gives us the chance to slow down a little, to figure out our goals and to think about personal resolutions,” Cohen said. Not necessarily resolutions involving weight loss, working out or quitting smoking. But rather, “how we can commit to our loved ones and the people around us.”
Furthermore, both holidays do call for celebrations, but in different ways. The secular New Year means parties, champagne and the ball dropping in New York’s Times Square. During Rosh Hashanah, “we celebrate God as King of the universe,” Zell explained. “If we can look at ourselves and say we truly believe we’ve done a better job this year than we did a year ago, standing at services, there is reason to celebrate.”
This celebration is far from popping a cork on the bubbly, however. “That celebration is that, if I did do better, than, God willing, one year from now, I can build on this improvement and become even more,” Zell remarked.
Still, as frothy as the secular new year can be, it doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed. Cohen, for one, mentioned that Beth Torah will host a special oneg Shabbat the Friday evening before New Year’s Eve. The event will take place before Kabbalat Shabbat and will offer wine, snacks and camaraderie.
“New Year’s is an opportunity to celebrate,” Cohen explained. “We may as well celebrate with our community. We can bring in the New Year and celebrate Shabbat at the same time.”
Even Cytron-Walker, who is an acknowledged skeptic about the importance of the secular new year, acknowledges it provides an opportunity for friends to gather for fun. Furthermore, thanks to the Internet, the world is much smaller. One could stream New Year’s celebrations from just about any corner of the world.
“It’s the one day where humanity, as a whole, does have a sense of commonality and celebration,” Cytron-Walker remarked. “That’s something that can be built upon. But we’re not there quite yet.”