Adath Yeshurun Synagogue members and guests began the observance of the Rosh Hashanah services on Wednesday night, which continue today and Friday.

Rosh Hashanah, observed throughout the world, is the Jewish New Year – a time of repentance that will culminate with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement on Sept. 12-13.

Together, they are known as the High Holy Days and are the most sacred days of Judaism.

The traditions go back thousands of years.

A week ago, Israeli officials flew 450 Ethiopian Jews to Tel Aviv – the last group formally transported in a program that began in 1984.

During that period, thousands of Jewish Ethiopians were rescued from the desert – a policy decision and subsequent actions that often emerged as controversial over the decades for a wide range of reasons.

Yet the overarching meaning behind that effort remains astonishing.

In 1985, a group of 70 South Carolinians spent 10 days in Israel. The group members traveled to Jerusalem during the trip and went to see the profoundly spiritual Western or Wailing Wall – the remaining section of the ancient Jewish Temple.

Their visit that morning happened to occur two or three days before the observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

To their amazement, a contingent of Ethiopian rabbis arrived at the wall to pray. One of them, a man with a long, gray beard, stood about 6-foot-5, weighing around 230 pounds. He produced a long, curved shofar – commonly described as a ram’s horn – that is a vital part of Rosh Hashanah.

He drew traditional blasts of sound from the shofar, which offers a clarion call to Jews in honor of Rosh Hashanah.

A religious observance

The New Year in Judaism is a religious observance, far different from the secular holiday that Americans enjoy with parties and football.

While Rosh Hashanah is celebrated among families and Yom Kippur is a more somber experience, they are also about repentance for transgressions over the year, said Rae Antonoff in 2012.

For the third year, the Los Angeles resident, who has trained extensively in Jewish education, is conducting the services in Aiken for both holidays.

“Our words have the power to build relationships, but others can blow them to the ground,” Antonoff said last year. “Sometimes we have to return to those we’ve hurt and turn again to those we love.”

Sharon Preston, a lay leader at Adath Yeshurun with Ernie Levinson, grew up in Virginia, learning about the concept of judgment within the High Holy Days through her parents and family.

“In more of a spiritual sense, it’s about turning inward,” Preston said. “It’s how we improve ourselves in society and with others.”

She moved to Aiken a decade ago and was asked to volunteer to lead the Friday night services in 2010. Now, she is the religious chairman, sharing the rabbinical duties with Levinson.

Preston again is taking a role in the Rosh Hashanah services led by Antonoff.

As a child and teenager, Preston would not have been allowed on the bimah, the elevated platform used for the services. Such an opportunity is not permitted for women in an Orthodox – strictly observant – synagogue.

She can do so today in Adath Yeshurun, which, like thousands of other synagogues, accepted a reform movement that emerged in the 19th century.

“To me, that is a huge honor, to be on the bimah and lead the congregation in prayer,” she said. “I don’t take it lightly.”

Blowing of the shofar

The blowing of the shofar is an especially moving portion of Rosh Hashanah.

It’s unusual for the services’ leader to do so, but Antonoff learned that skill in Israel several years ago.

As she prepared her own shofar in 2012, a congregation member noted that Howard Katz, a newcomer to Aiken at the time, also brought his shofar.

The impromptu performance turned into a spirited duet that charmed the congregation members. Katz later described it like street music, calling to other people to start off the New Year.

The shofar provides the sounds for three blessings – calling in part for the belief in one God and a call for faith and peace.

When Katz was 10 years old, “I found a shofar on a shelf behind the bimah. That guy who was blowing it saw I was interested and showed me the technique you use with your lips,” he said. “I started that year and saw how special it was and how people’s faces lit up. I loved hearing the sound.”

Katz was moved to share the moment with Antonoff last year, to bring in the new year together.

“To me, it brought an even more spiritual sound – to play with someone to give it that extra ring.”

He and his wife Andrea have two sons – Elijah, 6, and Jonah, 18 months. Elijah has leaped into the joy of the synagogue, eagerly participating in all services whenever invited.

“It’s wonderful that he actively wants to be Jewish and to learn the culture,” Katz said. “He’s like a little sponge.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001.

He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.