Congregation Mekor Shalom, 14005A N. Dale Mabry Highway, has grown to more than 100 households since it was founded a little more than two years ago.
Members come from Lutz, from Land O’ Lakes, from Wesley Chapel, from Zephyrhills, and many other parts of Tampa Bay.
And most of those households, if not all, will be stopping in on Wednesday, during the one time on the calendar where everyone comes together.
“I call it tax season for clergy,” said Hazzan Jodi Sered-Lever.
As Hazzan, she’s Mekor Shalom’s clergy who leads them in prayer. She’s also their founding spiritual leader.
The occasion is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which is Sept. 23 this year. Part of the High Holy Days, along with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it’s considered by many to be the most significant date on the Jewish calendar.
While it’s a time for reflection and forgiveness, it’s definitely not a time for judging the congregation at Mekor Shalom.
Sered-Lever knows the seats will be filled more than during the weekly Sabbath services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Whether it’s a treasured family tradition or a sense of obligation to participate in the High Holidays, many members who don’t attend services regularly are looking for a seat at Yom Kippur.
And that’s fine for Sered-Lever. Whether someone attends every weekend, or hasn’t been there since the last Yom Kippur service, she wants everyone to feel welcomed and valued.
“I don’t use guilt in any of my religious practices. I meet people where they’re at,” she said. “I’m glad to see you when you’re here. I’m glad to have your involvement; I’m glad to have your gifts. Because each person’s gifts are appreciated, and they’re not just monetary, and they’re not just numbers showing up.”
Those who do attend will arrive in a different state than usual. Yom Kippur observers fast from the previous sundown until that day’s sundown (with medical exceptions), refrain from working or wearing leather shoes, do not bathe and do not anoint themselves in perfume or cologne. They forego many daily comforts and rituals in order to focus more on asking for forgiveness, not only to God, but to other people their actions may have affected over the past year. Much of the day is spent in prayer and reflection.
And they’ll not only pray, but hear the Hazzan speak on a special topic. She didn’t reveal this year’s subject, but previously she’s focused on the concept of a proper apology. Instead of a half-hearted “I’m sorry you feel that way” statement, she encouraged her congregation to take ownership in their apologies, and to deliver them with authenticity.
Whether they come to pray on Yom Kippur out of a sense of tradition once a year, or always attend weekly services, Sered-Lever wants every member to get the most out of the experience. She believes that true reflection on actions and behaviors, and an earnest desire to improve oneself, can have great benefits for an individual even after Yom Kippur ends.
“You get out of it what you put into it,” Sered-Lever said. “If you take this time and really use it for this purpose, you have the greatest chance of being able to evolve as a person, and develop your relationships and connections, and be the best person you can be.”
While it might be the one time of year that every seat is filled (during some busy times, events might also be held at the nearby Carrollwood Country Club), Sered-Lever doesn’t approach her job differently because there might be more of the congregation listening. She’s still grateful for the attendees, appreciates their participation, and strives to give them a welcoming experience from the moment they walk in the door.
Her schedule doesn’t change much, either. In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Hazzan spent time instructing Zachary Marlow, 13, as he prepared for his Bar Mitzvah, the ceremony that celebrates a Jewish boy taking on the religious obligations and observances of a man. A Jewish girl taking part in the same ceremony is known as a Bat Mitzvah.
Zachary’s mother, Susan, serves on the congregation’s board of trustees. She believes that even in Jewish households where they don’t attend regular services, the need to connect with the community during the High Holidays is strong.
“Even if you weren’t in a religious household, you always went on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You always do. That’s just what Jews do, for the most part. It’s a very cultural thing. It’s a way of life for us, and we take that into adulthood,” she said.
Both adults and children attend Mekor Shalom, ranging in ages from infants to those in their 90s. And whatever their reasons for attending Yom Kippur or any other service, Sered-Lever will keep working to make it a positive experience each time they step into the synagogue.
“It’s all about creating a safe and nurturing environment for people to be. This is a sanctuary,” she said. “It’s a safe community and people should feel comfortable, and people should feel that there is a message with which they can connect.”
The Yom Kippur service will begin at 9 a.m. The final service will begin at 6 p.m. For information, call (813) 963-1818 or visit MekorShalom.org.
Chabad at Wiregrass, 2124 Ashley Oaks Circle in Wesley Chapel, will also have Yom Kippur services. They begin with a morning service at 10 a.m., with the final service beginning at 6 p.m. For information, call (813) 642-3244 or visit ChabadAtWiregrass.com.
Published September 23, 2015