On Sept. 4, Kate Soukonnikov is a whirlwind of energy. She's got a lot to do in preparation for Har Shalom synagogue's month-long celebration of the Jewish High Holy Days, which begins next week. "It's sort of like Easter and Christmas rolled up into onealthough it's unrelated thematically," she explains.
There are chairs to order, meals to organize and services to plan. What's unique this year for Har Shalom is that congregants are taking the lead, for instance, presiding over services and teaching Hebrew. It's part of a bottom-up community effort to keep the small synagogue, composed of roughly 50 families, thriving during the absence of their spiritual leader, Laurie Franklin, who left Har Shalom for a year to continue her rabbinical studies in Jerusalem.
"We never stepped up until all of a sudden she wasn't there anymore," says Soukonnikov, who's leading a committee created last summer to fill the void. "It's actually working... We're trying to empower everybody to do everything and anything they want." The High Holy Days are an especially spiritual time for Jews, including Soukonnikov, who seems invigorated by her recent heightened commitment to the synagogue. "This year has been an incredible one for me," she says.
On Sept. 8, the congregation will begin celebration of the month of Elul. It encompasses the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It's a month of introspection and self-reflection, a time, Soukonnikov says, to evaluate one's place in the world.
Congregants are not handling the High Holy Days solely on their own. Visiting Rabbi David Whiman, a long-time spiritual guide for Soukonnikov, will be in Missoula to assist. Franklin, meanwhile, is Skyping with Har Shalom members in her absence.
Aside from the Skyping, Har Shalom is in many ways returning to the old ways, when community members took active roles in shaping their spiritual communities, says board president Bert Chessin, who is serving as cantor during the High Holy Days. "What we're doing now does connect us to the way it used to be 100 years ago, 200 years ago," he says.