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What we can all learn from the High Holy Days

Courtesy of Yael Eckstein

Each year during the High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and end 10 days later with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), I look forward to being able to start anew and gain a new perspective.

Starting anew is what the High Holy Days are all about. We begin this sacred season by celebrating Rosh Hashanah. But instead of the typical new year celebration we might be used to, Rosh Hashanah is more about renewing our faith and changing our hearts to see the good, to believe that revealed blessings are indeed possible for the new year ahead.

British Chief Rabbi, the late Lord Jonathan Sacks (OBM) beautifully described faith as possessing “not certainty, but rather the courage to live with the uncertainty.”

It sounds simple, but we all know how difficult this can be, especially as uncertainty seems to envelop every area of life. Beyond even our personal challenges, the news we’re constantly exposed to is often bad news.

The Ukraine war carries on with destruction and hardship at every turn. The world economic situation is shaky. On top of this, we Israelis are keenly aware that our enemies want to destroy the Jewish homeland and bring terror to her people.

And with the number of terror attacks in Israel this past month, the cycle of violence and hatred seems to have taken a turn for the worse.

My mother, who was born in America to a Holocaust survivor from Germany, remembers growing up in New York in the post-Holocaust era. “Everything was full of hope,” she said. “The world pledged ‘never again’, economics were on the rebound, and individual freedom was improving by the day.”

Hope. A sacred value indeed. As I look at my four children — at the news they consume, the social media they indulge in, and the rhetoric of world leaders they are being raised on — I don’t think they would describe the world as predominantly feeding them “hope.”

And that’s why the High Holidays are so important to me. As Rabbi Sacks said, “History does not give rise to hope; hope gives rise to history.”

I see this time of year as an opportunity to escape the cycle of negative messaging and instead focus on spiritual introspection. These “Days of Awe” offer an opportunity for a fresh start, an opportunity to escape all of the distracting noise in this world, and a chance to see the light and blessings around us.

And once we open our eyes to see the blessings, they are endless.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Dedicating our time and energy to proactively trying to make the world a better place is no small task. How do we become a source of light and hope to others, when our days are so often focused on self-serving activities like trying to make money, watching the news, and scrolling social media?

According to Jewish tradition, we rely on three core faith principles — repentance, prayer, and charity — to bring about this change of heart. By helping others, we are not only seeing the good in the world, we’re actually taking part in changing the world for the better. Just as one small candle can bring light to a dark room, our good deeds bring significant light to this dark world.

At the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship), we take the mandate to help others and bring hope to the hopeless very seriously.

In 2023, this will take the form of over $10 million of aid distributed to 287,000 needy people worldwide: 213,000 will receive food assistance, among them 36,000 people in single-parent households, while 96,000 poor children, including orphans, in Israel and the former Soviet Union will receive clothing and school supplies.

This special High Holy Days distribution is funded by over 600,000 faithful donors, who additionally fund the lifesaving care and aid we deliver every day of the year to people on the brink of despair.

Each year that I witness The Fellowship delivering our holiday assistance, I am so inspired to see the change. People who’ve faced so much suffering, despair, and loneliness finally feel hope and are able to focus on the blessings in their lives. They might not have much, but when The Fellowship distributes a food box that enables them to celebrate the holiday with food and dignity, they feel like they have it all. This, to me, embodies the true meaning of the High Holy Days.

As the holidays approach, I’m thinking of Liyudmyla, her teenage son Andreii, and her mother, Tetiana, who escaped the war in Ukraine with the help of The Fellowship. They are now in Israel and will be celebrating the High Holy Days in the Holy Land for the very first time. After going through such hardship — a bomb fell right near their home in Mariupol, shattering windows and damaging doors — starting a new life can be overwhelming.

But Liyudmyla told us, “Like every new beginning, ours also is not so easy, but knowing that The Fellowship is helping us and standing with us makes us believe that we can overcome any obstacles.”

Faina, who was born in Poland just prior to World War II, lives in Israel today. She never married and has no family nearby. But, despite living with poverty and loneliness, she has found hope. She now receives food deliveries, medical care, and the necessities for Jewish holidays through The Fellowship.

“Thank you so much for the groceries for Rosh Hashanah,” she told us. “It’s so touching that I want to cry. I will have a holiday table, and I will be able to celebrate. I used to go to the synagogue on holidays, but now I have to stay at home because of my vision problems. This is very important help for me.”

There is a beautiful Hebrew saying: “The end result represents the first intention.” So, as I see my team and our wonderful supporters bringing hope to people in need for the New Year, that means this hope is going to be with them for the entire year.

And, on a personal basis, if we start our year with repentance, prayer, and charity, these biblical values of hope, social responsibility, and humbleness will also be with us the whole year.

No matter where we are in life, we have the chance to change our perspective by focusing on the blessings all around us. This High Holy Day season, may we not only help shine light in other people’s lives, but may we experience the hope, care, togetherness, blessings, and charity that we all need.

As President and CEO of The Fellowship, Yael Eckstein oversees all programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the organization. With over a decade of non-profit experience in multiple roles, Yael has the rare distinction of being a woman leading one of the world’s largest religious charitable organizations. In addition to her podcast exploring the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, Nourish Your Biblical Roots. Yael also invites thought-leaders, pastors, authors, and other influencers to discuss Israel and Jewish-Christian relations on Conversations with Yael. She is the 2023 recipient of the Jerusalem Post’s Humanitarian Award, and in 2020 and 2021, was named to the publication’s list of 50 Most Influential Jews. Born outside of Chicago, Yael is based in Israel with her husband and their four children.

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