Elul: Preparing for the High Holidays, Mending the World

Guest Post by JVP member, Rachel Ida Buff

On September 1, Jewish Voice for Peace held a webinar on the subject of the High Holidays.  Rabbi Dev Noily and Rabbi Margaret Holub, both of the JVP Rabbinic Council, taught about their practices of teshuvah (making right) and tochecha (sacred rebuke).  This piece emerges from my preparation for the webinar, and from the teachings and conversations that took place that evening. 

September comes with conflicting impulses. On the one hand, it is part of the month of Elul: the full cycle of the Jewish year that stops, and then renews, over the course of the high holidays.  Elul is a time for thinking about the past year and the year to come, for mending relationships in need of attention.

At the same time that Jewish September brings a contemplative pause, everything else seems to be accelerating.  As the lull of August begins to give way to Fall, schools resume, stores bustle with back to school shopping, the traffic in my city picks up perceptibly. It’s hard to find time for contemplation.

This tension is particularly acute for activists.  As we work to dismantle the seeming indomitable forces of militarism, racism, Islamophobia, and injustice, slowing down to reflect can seem irresponsible.  Elul calls us to make time for reflection and evaluation.

During last week’s webinar, Rabbi Margaret shared her personal Elul practice of reading over her datebook and taking extensive notes about the past year.  A participant in the webinar posed the question: “What would it be like to inhabit these practices of contemplation and review collectively, as activists and as members of JVP?”  I imagined doing that with my JVP chapter in Milwaukee.

The previous year, like all years, was full of things to mourn and rage about, respond to, celebrate, and organize around.  JVP Milwaukee came together to do Palestine solidarity work and to speak as Jews against U.S. support of Israeli militarism. This is crucial and difficult work. Over the course of the year, we were also impelled by solidarity with #Blacklivesmatter, with immigrant rights, with the seemingly endless war against the public sphere here in Wisconsin.  We were busy!

Headlines crashed over our heads like a storm on nearby Lake Michigan, and we clambered to participate in a movement for social change, for justice. There was little time for reflection. Like many activists, we often felt overextended, like we could not do all the things we wanted to.

But if we were to take the time for a collective teshuvah practice, it might look different.  The world is still a rough and broken place.  By and large, American Jewish communities still uncritically support Israeli policies of brutal occupation and displacement.

Nevertheless, we have come a ways together.  Jewish Voice for Peace is an undeniable presence and a force for justice; it has grown through the formation of chapters like the one I belong to in Milwaukee.

A collective teshuva practice – an accounting for the past year – would tally all the work we have done together. It would show places we have fallen short: work we want to do better; alliances we would like to strengthen. It might reveal some internal fault lines: ways we could work together better in our chapters.  And like the high holiday season, it might also honor how far we have come and give us the strength to continue our work.

Rachel Ida Buff is co-coordinator of Jewish Voice for Peace in Milwaukee. She teaches history and comparative ethnic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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