Sweet start to Rosh Hashanah in Niskayuna

Published Wednesday, September 9, 2015
by REBECCA ISENHART

Sweet start to Rosh Hashanah in Niskayuna

Zachary Leighton and Stephanie Bailund-Witty sample apples with honey before voting on which variety tastes best. Photo: Rebecca Isenhart
Zachary Leighton and Stephanie Bailund-Witty sample apples with honey before voting on which variety tastes best. Photo: Rebecca Isenhart

JCC holds gathering ahead of Jewish new year with food, fun

BY REBECCA ISENHART
Gazette Reporter

NISKAYUNA — The Schenectady JCC’s first annual pre-Rosh Hashanah celebration brought together new friends from several of Schenectady’s Jewish congregations on Tuesday evening.

The event, which was held in advance of the Jewish new year celebration from sundown on Sunday, Sept. 13 to sundown on Tuesday, Sept. 15, was meant to start a new local tradition.

Judy Ben-Ami, who has worked for the Schenectady JCC for 11 years but was recently promoted to Jewish cultural director, planned the gathering. Part of the reason she wanted to start a new tradition for Rosh Hashanah was because no one had done so yet, locally.

“We’re a small community,” she said. “We don’t want to compete with each other.”

Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein demonstrates the preparation of Challah bread. Photo: Rebecca Isenhart

Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein demonstrates the preparation of Challah bread. Photo: Rebecca Isenhart

Instead, they worked together. Four local congregations, Agudat Achim, Beth Israel, Beth Shalom, and Congregation Gates of Heaven were represented in the JCC’s auditorium, each selling items from their home synagogue’s gift shop to support their programs and help visitors get into the new year’s spirit.

“This is a nice way to unite them all,” Ben-Ami said. “It’s very cool that we are all in the same room.”

In addition to four congregations that range from a very traditional Orthodox synagogue to a more relaxed Reformed group, other community members also set up tables and socialized. Mayan Hands, a local fair-trade business that connects artisans in Guatemala with buyers in other parts of the world, sold Judaica, Jewish gifts to celebrate the holiday.

“We know these temples, but we don’t know the people,” said Lin Guinipero, who attended the event from Beth Shalom.

The Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York was also represented. Amy Drucker, the director of special programs for the organization, painted children’s faces with apples, butterflies and peace signs while simultaneously educating parents and grandparents about the federation’s programming. She brought books from the PJ Library, a service she oversees that sends new Jewish bedtime stories to families each month. Thanks to grants and donations, the program is free in the Capital Region.

Amy Drucker paints 4-year-old Lily Lean's face during the JCC's pre-Rosh Hashanah celebration. Photo: Rebecca Isenhart

Amy Drucker paints 4-year-old Lily Lean’s face during the JCC’s pre-Rosh Hashanah celebration. Photo: Rebecca Isenhart

“We use the PJ Library, in this community, as a connector,” Drucker said. That’s true in more ways than one: She hopes the PJ Library books will connect children and their families with community organizations like the Schenectady JCC during events and celebrations, and also that it will help teach kids about their heritage and beliefs.

“They are books based on either Jewish holidays or Jewish values,” she said.

Though the end result was to build community, educate and celebrate together, the families that showed up for the first annual Rosh Hashanah celebration at the Schenectady JCC were delighted by the celebratory foods and games.

Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein from Saratoga gave a demonstraton on making Challah bread, inviting children to braid the dough themselves. Usually Challah is a long, thin shape, but during the new year it’s round to invoke “the shape of the year,” Ben-Ami explained. It also looks like a crown, which reminds everyone to have a royal year.

Andy Katz, the JCC’s program director, held an apple-tasting and kept track of which local apples people enjoyed most. He gave out honey sticks to go alongside the fruit. Apples, honey, and sometimes pomegranates are all traditional fruits for Rosh Hashannah, as they remind people to have a sweet year.

Later on, several rabbis played Pictionary with the children who gathered.

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