CLEARWATER — Jews throughout Pinellas County and around the world are preparing again for the High Holy Days — Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
From Rosh Hashana, the joyful new year ushered in with apples dipped in honey, through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that comes 10 days later, Jews will reflect on their lives. They will pray, seek forgiveness from each other and God, and focus on improving themselves in the year to come.
Perhaps the loudest call to awareness for Jews everywhere is the blast of the shofar.
The shofar, or ram's horn, has biblical origins in the Book of Exodus, when the ancient Israelites were summoned to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.
Rabbi David Weizman of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater is bringing that wakeup call to children as young as 3. One recent morning, he held up a long, smooth, spiral shofar to show a group of preschoolers seated on the carpeted floor of a synagogue classroom. The small children were wide-eyed as he lifted the horn and sounded the longest note from a traditional series of notes — a long, plaintive sound that seemed unending.
"What does the shofar sound mean?" teacher Tami Wolf asked the children.
One alert 4-year-old, Ronald Causby, son of Ronald and Jennifer Causby of Seminole, was ready with the answer.
"It means wake up, everybody," he said, "because it's a new year."
The blowing of the shofar is just that — a call to awaken the listeners' better instincts, to inspire them to make the new year a better one than the year before.
"It's an alarm clock that gets us excited for the new year," said Rabbi Danielle Upbin, wife of Weizman and associate rabbi of the synagogue. "It wants us to wake up, step up and be the best we can be."
She noted that blowing the shofar is the only mitzvah, or moral requirement expected of Jewish people, that is done with the breath alone, rather than through actions or words.
"That is a soul connection," she said. "We give voice to the breath of life by blowing the shofar."
Rosh Hashana begins at sundown on Wednesday, ushering in a 10-day period that culminates when Yom Kippur begins at sundown Oct. 7.
Rosh Hashana celebrates the birth of the world and is joyful, Weizman said. With traditional apples and honey, Jews celebrate their lives and the lives of all of God's creations.
"The apple and honey are favorite symbols for the children," said Upbin. The star shape in the middle of an apple, she said, is used to teach the children that they, too, have an inner star — their own unique light to give to the world.
"In the 10 days in between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, a transition takes place. There is a transition from the world to the self," Weizman said. "In the 10 days of introspection, we focus on ourselves and our mission in this world."
In Judaism, he said, you have the chance to wipe the slate clean and begin the new year as a better person.
The seriousness of Yom Kippur, the last day, carries a lesson that children can understand as well as adults, Upbin said. That is the concept of "teshuvah," or a turning back to the path of right actions, the moral way. Small children learn to say they are sorry for hurting another child, making a hurtful comment to parents, or taking someone's toy.
On the wall of the synagogue's school hangs a cardboard mitzvah tree, with flaps shaped like leaves. Each leaf states a child's good deed, such as helping a friend or cleaning up the classroom. Inside the flap is the name and picture of the child.
Older children delve deeper, Weizman said.
"We teach them about repentance and renewal," he said. "They need to think about what they did wrong, how they can correct it, and how they can become better people in the new year."