Thursday October 4, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Beginning her 17th year as educational director at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, and in the midst of the High Holy days, Paula Hellman is a busy woman. She has new families to meet and new educational programs to administer.

The temple is transforming -- windows removed and a tent erected temporarily -- to accommodate the nearly 700 worshippers who come to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; it's all part of an invigorating cycle for Hevreh, which is also celebrating its 13th year at its State Road location.

Still, Hellman is never too busy to tell a story.

"I find that everything is a story," Hellman said with a laugh. She often encounters herself on a tiny chair among tiny scholars, telling tales from the Old Testament.

One of her favorites is of Abraham in the desert.

"He's with Sarah, and the tent flaps are up so he could welcome visitors," she said. " He runs to greet them. Washes their feet. Runs to get a cow to make them dinner. We learn that not only is this an obligation, but that this is a good thing for them to do. To welcome guests. To feed guests."

It is an illustration that is also reminiscent of the Jewish harvest festival, Sukkot, a seven-day observance that literally means Feast of Booths and is traditionally held five days after Yom Kippur.

"(It) is a time of great rejoicing," Hellman said.


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"Traditionally, when we were an agricultural society, families would literally move into the fields, erecting a temporary dwelling called a Sukkah or a booth, and they would live there while they were doing the harvest."

As a remembrance of that time, many families still build the three-sided, roofless structures in their yards that house a table laden with the bounty of the harvest.

The Sukkah at Hevreh is decorated each year by the children, using gourds, flowers, fruits and tree boughs, Hellman explained. The three walls are wrapped in twine and woven with corn stalks.

"It is a beautiful thing: It has no solid roof, so that you can look up and see the stars, and traditionally it has an open wall so that you can see people coming and welcome them," she said.

"One of the traditions of the holiday is that you wave something called a lulav and an etrog. Lulav is made up of three things: myrtle leaves, which represents eyes; palm branch, which represents the spine; and a willow branch, which represents lips. And the Etrog -- another name for a citron -- that has a sweet scent and a strong taste and represents the heart.

When held together they represent essentially your whole self. (We wave them) in all directions: North, South, East, West, up, down ... so that that we have a sense of connecting totally in a totality with God."

And as Holy Days come to a close, they do so with Simchat Torah, which means Joy of the Torah, and the scrolls are unrolled in the synagogue.

"It emphasizes that we are in a cycle, going from the end to the beginning. In this ceremony, students who have a bar or bat mitzvah in 2013 will receive the torah portion they will read for the first time.

"After that ceremony we roll up the Torahs, put on the Torah covers, and we dance."

Dancing reminds her of another story.

"Arthur Waskow, in his book ‘Season of Our Joy,' he talks about Rosh (meaning head) Hashanah as how we worship God in our intellect," she said. "Yom Kippur, which is fasting, strains the heart. Sukkot, as harvest, makes us think in terms of gathering with hands, and Simchat Torah is the dance.

"Head, heart hands and feet the whole living intuit becomes part of what we do at High Holy Season. And in our school we try to convey that joy. Through stories. Getting the children to have a sense that they are creating a community and continuing that into the world.

"We teach at our school that it's up to us to have a relationship with God and to understand that we are responsible to take care of the planet and heal the rifts within our community. That's one of the things we try to convey to our children."