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For St. Petersburg rabbi, her calling came at 45

Rabbi Leah Herz’s go-to props include a shofar, which is sounded at Rosh Hoshana, the beginning of the High Holidays, and at Yom Kippur, the end.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Rabbi Leah Herz’s go-to props include a shofar, which is sounded at Rosh Hoshana, the beginning of the High Holidays, and at Yom Kippur, the end.

ST. PETERSBURG— Barbra Streisand's unmistakable voice rang out with the Avinu Malkeinu — Our Father, Our King — a traditional supplication offered during Judaism's High Holy Days.

"Hear our prayer. … Have compassion upon us and upon our children,'' it says in part. "Inscribe us for blessing in the Book of Life. Let the new year be a good year for us."

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, begins at sundown today and with it 10 days of self-examination, repentance, renewal and hope.

With its approach, Rabbi Leah Herz, chaplain and director of spiritual care at Menorah Manor in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, has been preparing employees for what is the most sacred time on the Jewish calendar. Barbra Streisand, handouts, a stuffed toy ram and a shofar have been her go-to props as she has discussed the significance of the High Holidays, its prayers, customs and foods and the memories evoked by certain melodies, shofar blasts and even the aroma of chicken soup.

Last week, Herz interspersed her presentation with jokes that brought chuckles from the crowd of mostly non-Jewish employees. This is her calling, sharing her faith, she said afterward, acknowledging that it has taken a few decades to get this point.

"I like to joke that I got my rabbinic ordination and my AARP card at the same time,'' she said.

It's only a slight exaggeration. June 1, 2005, was her 50th birthday. June 4 was ordination day.

Herz, 56, who served as a rabbi at congregations in Washington state and Ohio, feels at home at Menorah Manor, where the mission is to provide "the best possible care in a warm, homelike, Jewish environment."

"I have found my rabbinate in this setting,'' she said.

"I've always had an affinity for the older population. I find that this population is engaged. They want to learn. They understand what a rabbi is. There is recognition and respect."

In turn, she recognizes the special considerations that come with older people as they observe treasured holidays and remember those long past.

"Engage them in discussions about how they celebrated Rosh Hashana,'' she advised Menorah Manor employees.

"What was it like in their home? Did you do anything special? How did you and husband or your wife celebrate Rosh Hashana? Did you have a favorite song? What was it?"

The Jewish new year, she explained, is not a new year celebration in the secular sense, but a commemoration of the creation of the world. Tradition calls for special prayers and foods such as a round challah with raisins or apples dipped in honey to signify hope for a sweet new year, she said.

Yom Kippur, the culmination of the High Holy Days, is supposed to be a day of fasting, but Herz was quick to point out that the mandate doesn't apply to those who are frail, like many Menorah Manor residents.

"It is extremely important that they don't get caught up in the guilt that they're not fasting,'' she said.

"There's a foundational belief in Judaism of something that is called pikuach nefesh, meaning literally, saving of a life, saving of a soul. And that concept in Judaism really supersedes everything else. When you're dealing with a more senior population, it is critical that we be more concerned about their well-being."

In such instances, she said, the normal Yom Kippur greeting of wishing a person an easy fast is inappropriate.

"I hope you have a meaningful day,'' is more sensitive, she said.

Herz spoke of other Yom Kippur customs, such as wearing white clothing and canvas instead of leather shoes as a symbol of simplicity and introspection.

During an interview, she discussed the belief that during the High Holidays, God judges his people and writes their fate for the new year in the Book of Life. As the Unetaneh Tokef prayer says, "On Rosh Hashana it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die. …"

Hence the holiday wish, "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year."

For some older people, the traditional holiday greeting might not hold much significance, Herz said, so part of her job "is to help them find meaning in their lives despite circumstances."

Marshall Seiden, chief executive officer of Menorah Manor, said Herz is exactly the type of rabbi the facility was seeking when it hired her in May.

"She is extremely sensitive to the needs and concerns of seniors. She has a passion for it,'' he said. "We needed somebody who was open, approachable and friendly and we got that — and a joyous person."

Herz is the only full-time Jewish chaplain on Florida's Gulf Coast.

She also serves as hospice chaplain for the Jewish community through a partnership with Menorah Manor and Suncoast Hospice.

The mother of an adult son grew up in a family steeped in Judaism.

"I had kind of hiatus during my college years,'' she said. "After my son was born, I was very engaged again.''

She did not become a bat mitzvah until her late 30s. "That kind of opened the floodgates. I found I really loved this Hebrew stuff. I loved the Torah,'' Herz said of studying for the traditional coming-of-age rite.

She continued her studies while working as a stockbroker in Chicago and applied to the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion to become a rabbi.

In 2000, with her son away at college, she sold her home and flew to Jerusalem to begin her first year of study. She was ordained five years later.

Son Seth Shapiro, an actor in Hollywood who also does improvisational comedy, is "incredibly proud'' of her, Herz said.

But, she adds, that doesn't mean he doesn't crack a rabbi joke every now and then.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

For St. Petersburg rabbi, her calling came at 45 09/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 1:02pm]
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