Forgiveness in the 21st Century

By Leah Hochbaum

Published September 29, 2006, issue of September 29, 2006.
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The High Holy Days are meant to be a time of sincere self-reflection and heartfelt penitence. But these days, many synagogues are filled with people decked out in uncomfortable temple-appropriate garb, complaining that the cantor was too slow, while they try to figure out what they’re going to eat to break their Yom Kippur fasts. In short, these holidays — the most meaningful in the Jewish calendar year — seem to have lost some of their oomph. But the National Jewish Outreach Program is hoping to bring it back.

In early August, the not-for-profit, an outreach organization that runs programs across the world in an effort to bring members of the tribe closer to God and to each other, launched Project Forgiveness (, a Web site that allows contrite but cautious users to upload postcard, letter and e-mail apologies to people they’ve wronged throughout the year. They then have the choice of anonymously alerting the person to whom they’ve apologized as to the existence of the posting… or not.

“One of the key themes of the High Holy Days is getting forgiveness,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate director of NJOP. “People generally think in terms of ‘Will God forgive me?’ But what about people forgiving people? It’s the hardest thing in the world to say, ‘I was wrong.’ Hopefully Project Forgiveness will put the germ in people’s minds to ask themselves, ‘Who should I say I was wrong to?’ And since it’s on the Internet, it can be done in an arm’s length way. You can just hope that whoever it was intended for sees it — even though you obviously can’t get forgiveness just by posting.” Thus far, roughly 65 individuals have purged their souls on the site. The postings range from the humorous: “Mom and Dad, I’m sorry for writing on the walls, I thought it would look pretty”; “Papa, sorry I broke curfew again,” and to a dog, “I am sorry for not always treating you like my best friend,” to the heartrending: “I am sorry for blaming you for my second marriage gone wrong” and “I spread a nasty rumor about you at shul.”

Rosenbaum hopes that as we move closer to the Day of Atonement, more and more people will sign on in the hopes of absolving and becoming absolved.

“Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness,” he said. “But in order to attain forgiveness from God, you have to first examine your human interactions. You can’t dichotomize the relationships between man and God and man and man. You can’t treat your brothers and sisters harshly and expect God to forgive you when you need him to. It doesn’t work like that.”

NJOP launched in 1987 to address the issues of assimilation and lack of Jewish knowledge among Jews. After founder Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald realized that most Jews require some fundamental knowledge to feel fully involved in Judaism — chiefly, reading Hebrew and being able to understand what’s happening during synagogue services — he introduced a crash course in Hebrew reading, as well as temple Beginner Services, in which newbies can get explanations, ask questions, and learn when it’s proper to stand and sit during prayers.

Rather than send its own staff spanning the globe, NJOP simply provides synagogues with a blueprint for how to teach the program’s signature classes. The places of worship then hire their own teachers to guide the students. NJOP encourages them to employ lay people or individuals who just finished the class themselves in order to provide pupils with an unthreatening environment in which to learn about their faith.

“Young people who didn’t grow up going to shul regularly generally don’t feel welcome there,” Rosenbaum said. “But these programs are designed to draw people in to the Jewish community by merging that community with education. Jews are smart. If we challenge them to learn about who they are, they’ll come — as long as we don’t make it too onerous.”

Rosenbaum is hopeful that as the High Holy Days approach, that same uncomplicated attitude will draw people to the new Project Forgiveness site. In addition to being a forum to pardon personal transgressions, the page includes a poll asking users whether or not they forgive actor Mel Gibson for his recent alcohol-induced antisemitic tirade. Results vary from day to day, but they tend to skew toward showing mercy for the wayward thespian.

One comment, posted by someone who calls himself “ontheedgeofmyseat,” summed it up: “If God is willing to forgive us, how dare we withhold forgiveness from someone else? Mr. Gibson is not without sin, but we are just as sinful as he is. So let us forgive. Does it matter what his feelings are? Let God deal with him. Let’s worry about our own hearts.”

Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.

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