Hineni, I Am Here: A Yom Kippur Message From Our President & CEO

Hineni... Here I am...

Hineni is a prayer recited by the cantor prior to the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This word conveys millennia of Jewish transformation and acceptance of responsibility. Although this prayer is said by the cantor, every worshipper is responsible for reciting each word of the text, as the cantor does not pray for us but with us. Knowing we need to be focused and disciplined and realizing that we may fall short, we pray for the ability to pray.

Whenever a character in the Bible underwent a moment of profound change, like when G-d called upon Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham answered, “Hineni.” The same was true when Moses stood before the burning bush and G-d called his name, he responded, “Hineni.“

According to Cantor Matt Axelrod, "The word 'Hineni' is more of an existential expression. I’m not only here, but I’m here. I’m all in. I’m prepared to reflect on who I am, what’s important to me, and how I can effect change for others." Thus, we stand humble and ready for the difficult work of teshuvah despite being impoverished in spirit and deed.

Teshuvah, engaging in the process of self-reflection and repair, gives us the opportunity to examine the past year in all its facets and take responsibility by setting things straight. By doing so, we recommit to being our best selves. This process involves both an honest assessment, and an attitude of compassion and forgiveness.

During the month of Elul, I concentrated on teshuvah (repentance or return), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (charity). These three key words of the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer are about our relationship with ourself, our relationship with G-d, and our relationship with other people. “Teshuvah asks us - did we grow in the past year? Did we live fully and confidently as Jews? And did we study the texts of our heritage? ... Tefillah is our conversation with G-d. It is less about asking G-d about what we want, and more about asking G-d to teach us what we want. We speak about forgiveness and G-d’s presence in our lives… Tzedakah is the good we do for others.”

To complement my self-reflection, I also did mindful meditation sits through the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. What especially resonated with me was the week we focused on being the shofar out in the world. Basically, we contemplated our responsibility to speak out against injustice.

This year, we're living with uncertainty, brokenness, unrest, and a life-altering global pandemic. Especially during these challenging times, I personally felt the need to reach out regularly through personal calls and through my writings to bring about a sense of continuity, connection, hope, and balance.

These meditations further brought home the urgency to act. We must be a voice that elevates peace and understanding. We need to speak out against the pain and be a vessel of transformation. As John Lewis so often said and demonstrated, “If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.”

Each day we need to ask the question, "How will I do good today?” We need to raise our voices and awaken to our own power acknowledging what we are and recognizing who we are rather than what we do. We need to be vessels for G-d’s messages to flow through us and be a voice that elevates peace and understanding.

This has been an illuminating month for me, one that has helped me concretize my thoughts into action. We are now into the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we ask forgiveness from others. To that end, as Yom Kippur approaches, on behalf of our Federation and myself, I ask each and every one of you for your forgiveness. If you have felt wronged or upset by something Jewish Federation did or did not do, I apologize.

G’mar Hatimah Tovah, may you be sealed for a good year in the Book of Life. My hope is that this year we will bring wholeness to the brokenness, understanding to the confusion, and peace to the divisiveness.