Guest Commentary: Thoughts for the High Holy Days

Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel of Congregation Emanu-El, Redlands, CA
Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel of Congregation Emanu-El, Redlands, CA

 Editor’s Note: This guest posting is from Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel, Congregation Emanu-El, Redlands, CA.

Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel
Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel

This past summer, I flew back and forth to Iowa three separate times spending several weeks with my 94-year old mother. Apart from enjoying sunshine, meals and cloud-gazing together, there were numerous trips to the ER from falls and other complications, medical visits and multiple discussions with doctors, assisted living staff and caregivers. After three weeks in rehab, we made the decision to keep my mom in skilled nursing and just recently, have enlisted hospice care to help manage the pain from a wound in her leg that will not heal due to poor vascular circulation.  Did I mention that my mom has dementia?  We are grateful that she still recognizes Dan and me – is always happy to hear our voices in our daily phone calls and of course, is even happier if we’re right there with her, but with the exception of a couple of other family members, close friends and her sister in London who calls once a week, my beloved mother doesn’t remember much else.  My mom was once a bright, witty and articulate conversationalist – translating German articles into English, proofreading a total of twelve languages…now the disease has robbed her of those skills, making it a struggle to sometimes complete a single sentence. How does a person imprisoned in their speech call out for help?

I think we are all imprisoned in some way – we are all wounded, grieving, fearful, lonely, reaching out in some way for our needs to be realized, our prayers to be answered… With Erev Rosh Hashanah commencing October 2, we continue the contemplative journey we began in the month of Elul to the next phase of celebrating the New Year 5777 with joy and gratitude; and Yom Kippur with reflection, forgiveness and hope. We plead with God, Shema Koleinu – hear our voices! Hear our cries! Rabbi Uri of Strelisk wrote:

We pray that God may accept our call for help. But we also pray that God, who knows that which hidden, may hear the silent cries of our souls.

On Yom Kippur, we sing and recite the powerful prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, reflecting on the coming year: ‘Who shall live and who shall die?’ We so desperately want to hold on to life.  The High Holy Days allow us to release our emotions, confront our mortality and vulnerability.  At   Sukkot we are reminded of the fragility of life when we read Kohelet and dwell in our lovely but sparse sukkah.  With the Gates of Heaven still open, may we find comfort in Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s words: “Only with God can we ease the intolerable tension of our existence. For only when God [He] is given, can we hold life at once infinitely precious and yet as a thing lightly to be surrendered. Only because of God [Him] is it possible for us to clasp the world, but with relaxed hands; to embrace it, but with open arms.”

May we each be sealed in the Book of Life with Blessings and Peace,

Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel



About Jennifer Bern-Vogel 1 Article
Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel relocated to Los Angeles in 2009 with her husband, Ira, and son, Sam, after serving Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk, Virginia from 1996-2009. Ohef Sholom Temple, founded in 1844, is the largest and oldest reform congregation in southeastern Virginia. Cantor Bern-Vogel feels blessed to have transitioned from one historic congregation to another and feels very much a part of the warm and diverse community of Congregation Emanu El in Redlands, which she has now served since 2009. Cantor Bern-Vogel is passionate about bringing worshippers an eclectic representation of musical genres and inspiring them to greater spiritual heights of prayer, contemplation and celebration throughout the yearly calendar cycle from Shabbat services to Life Cycles, Festivals and the High Holy Day season. Although serving Congregation Emanu El on a ‘part-time’ basis, Cantor Bern-Vogel has produced annual Cantor’s Concerts with many of her talented colleagues and friends from across southern California. One of Cantor Bern-Vogel greatest joys is teaching students of all ages the skills of Torah chanting and other sacred texts. In addition to offering pastoral counseling, Cantor Bern-Vogel is also deeply involved in Spiritual Care and End of Life issues, particularly with Holocaust survivors and first-generational family members and is currently working on becoming a Board Certified Chaplain with the National Association of Jewish Chaplains. Previously trained in opera at the State Conservatory of Music and Theater in Hannover, Germany, Bern-Vogel was Ordained as Cantor from the Hebrew Union College-Debbie Friedman Sacred School of Music in 1995 in New York City. She performed off-Broadway with the Folksbine Yiddish Theater from 1995-1996, while still in New York. Bern-Vogel studied with the second cantorial cohort at the Institute of Jewish Spirituality in 2006 and was the Programming Co-chair of the national ACC conventions for two years after moving to California. She has been an adjunct faculty at Hebrew Union College and also tutors B’nai Mitzvah students at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. Cantor Bern-Vogel continues her chaplaincy work at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in the ALS clinic and palliative care. E-mail Cantor Bern-Vogel directly at

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