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With Jewish high holy days underway, South Jersey rabbis see a time for reflection, inclusiveness and hope
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With Jewish high holy days underway, South Jersey rabbis see a time for reflection, inclusiveness and hope

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When Stockton University held its first day of classes during the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, students were upset but happy they didn’t have to choose between missing their first day of classes and missing the holiday.

Thanks to events planned by the Chabad of Stockton University & Galloway, they could have both.

“The students were so appreciative to be able to celebrate the holiday and also not miss out on the first day of classes,” said Rabbi Meir Rapoport, co-director of the Chabad at Stockton. “They refer to us as their home away from home.”

Atlantic City has had an established, at times conflicting relationship with American Jews, who began settling and visiting the resort in the late 19th century during its general rise in popularity as a summer resort. In the early 20th century, however, anti-Semitism led to a backlash and policies excluding Jews from many of the Boardwalk’s hotels. The move led the local Jewish community to develop its own hotels and businesses catering to Jews.

“So ‘side avenue’ hotels came to be, and that’s where Jews felt comfortable because they were accepted,” said Jerry Gordon, historian and author of “From Its Beginnings: The Jewish Community of the Atlantic City Area.”

Side avenue hotels offered kosher meals and even had cantors performing services for their guests.

Attitudes as well as businesses adapted. The Breakers Hotel, formerly at 4100 Boardwalk, was advertising Rosh Hashana services in 1944, catering to its mainly Jewish clientele.

“There was a lot of Jewish culture here besides religious life,” Gordon said.

That Jewish culture is evident in courses now taught at Stockton and in traditions celebrated during the Jewish high holy days, which began this year at sundown Sept. 6 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The holy days conclude with Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, beginning at sundown Wednesday and ending sundown Thursday. The day of atonement is considered the most sacred day of the year in the Jewish faith.

Marcia Fiedler, director of the Jewish Studies program at Stockton, teaches courses such as Women in the Bible and other subjects about Judaism. However, her classroom reflects a multifaith society and is a space where students can speak openly with each other about their beliefs.

“Ninety-five percent of the students who take the classes are not Jewish,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful experience for Muslim students, Christian students, students of no faith at all to get together and talk about similarities and differences. We’ve learned that no way is no better than the other.”

Last week, for Rosh Hashana, Chabad at Stockton held the ritual of the blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn linked to the biblical story of the binding of Isaac.

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Then the students partook in another tradition, the Tashlich. A prayer is sung while participants throw bread crumbs into a moving body of water such as a lake or ocean. The Stockton students performed the ritual at Lake Fred in Galloway Township.

“It represents throwing away all of your sins,” Fiedler said.

On Sunday, a “reverse” Tashlich event was held on the Huntington Avenue beach in Margate. Instead of throwing bread into the ocean, families and volunteers gathered to clean up the beach and pick up litter.

In addition to tradition and rituals, the Jewish high holidays are filled with symbols, especially when it comes to food.

A dish consisting of apples and honey is traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashana to signify a sweet beginning to the new year. Challah bread is also made into a round shape to represent the cycle of a year.

“We don’t want an ending to this goodness of the year — we want it to be a circle. Circle of life, you know, kind of Elton John-ish,” said Rabbi Shalom Ever from the Orthodox congregation Rodef Sholom in Atlantic City. “As a spiritual leader, Atlantic City is a very unusual town.”

According to Ever, 50% of his congregants are visitors, tourists and second-home owners. With new faces coming in all the time, Rodef Sholom ensures a warm welcome to all who attend services.

Atlantic City used to have a thriving Jewish population with four synagogues in the city, but as demographics changed, congregations moved to follow populations. Rodef Sholom is the only remaining synagogue in the city. However, Atlantic City’s reputation as a resort and place of worship for visitors has remained the same.

“The schul has an atmosphere in Atlantic City of a place, as a safe haven to pray, to schmooze, to hobnob,” said Ever. “And it goes on all year round, every day.”

According to Rapoport, Chabad at Stockton is welcoming and inclusive to Jews from all backgrounds.

“People join us from all different denominations. It is known as the synagogue of all affiliations and no affiliations.”

The period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is a time for inner reflection.

“The idea of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is the time for reset,” said Rapoport. “We could all use a hard reset,” he said, adding, “and no more COVID and no more pandemic.”

Chabad at Stockton will hold a pre-Yom Kippur dinner Wednesday.

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