Rosh Hashanah surprises


NEWPORT – There are often surprises at Touro Synagogue. Rosh Hashanah was no exception.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I settled into my second row seat, carefully positioned to have a full view of the bimah and ark without any obstructing columns, when the first surprise struck. The fire alarm went off. It could be heard at the nearby fire station and throughout much of downtown. I straggled outside with everyone else, and vowed to pay more attention in shul.

Returning to the machzor, I read that it is natural for man to sing and make music. However, we need the help of the Almighty to speak well. I detected some concern that we might not say the right thing without divine help. I know that sometimes I need help not to say hurtful things and to remember to say the right things.

Rabbi Marc Mandel briefly introduced the shofrot. That brevity is traditional. The sound of the shofar should pierce the heart, and that is its message.

Mandel observed that contrary to popular opinion, Orthodox Judaism has music in the service and demonstrated by ably blowing the shofar.

In the evening, many congregants met at shul to pick up a machzor. We proceeded down the hill to the harbor. Yeshiva University student Yair Strachman of Providence told us that Rosh Hashanah is an uncomplicated holiday in tune with the natural rhythms of life, which allows us to focus on our relationship with God. What is more natural than apples and honey?

We went onto docks for tashlich. As we finished, the dockmaster, concerned for our safety and perhaps worried that we might get on the Block Island Ferry by mistake, shooed us back onto land. We shmoozed on our way back to shul for the evening service.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we were in for the second surprise. Strachman asked me who was sitting in the President’s box with co-president Dr. Naftali Sabo. I was stumped. Mandel introduced the Consul General of Israel to New England, Yehuda Yaakov, joining the congregation for the day. He would receive an aliyah and speak briefly.

He was at Touro accompanied by his wife Ofra, daughter Yaara, mother Molly Jacob, and family friend Yair Lange. He had visited the synagogue several times previously, but in an official capacity.

With a smile, Yaakov told us he was glad to be at Touro, and mentioned George Washington’s letter about religious liberty. He also spoke about Shimon Peres. Peres, he said, came to Israel at the age of 5 and was fortunate to have Zionist parents, and to grow up in a home where Hebrew was spoken.

“If you asked 40 people what they thought of Shimon Peres, you would get 40 different answers,” Yaakov said. “But for me, Peres was a security man. He understood, better than most, that peace for Israel is rooted in its security. He was able to spend the latter part of his life as a champion for peace because he spent a majority of his life successfully securing Israel’s future.

“Peres understood, more broadly, that Israel’s security was an extension of its technology and innovation sectors.

“Israeli technology is a critical backbone to many of our relationships worldwide. The Rhode Island-Israel collaboration, for example, created a wheelchair that is able to go up and down stairs.”

The consul was referring to “Softwheel,” an Israeli company that designed a wheel with an internal suspension system for wheelchairs and bicycles. The product may have applications in both the automotive and aircraft industries.

AARON GINSBURG, a native of Newport, attends Shabbat services at Touro Synagogue. He can be reached at