The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, located in Kenya, is more than 100 years old
The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, located in Kenya, is more than 100 years old

High Holiday traditions vary with different communities

Here in Metro Detroit, Ashkenazi traditions predominate for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That means many community members attend religious services and enjoy a family meal likely to include chicken soup with matzah balls, gefilte fish, brisket or chicken, special challah and apples with honey.

Yet Detroit’s Sephardic Jews have their unique traditions and Jewish communities overseas may include both Sephardic and Ashkenazi dishes, along with local foods and customs.

Keter Torah Synagogue is located in West Bloomfield, but many of its Sephardic members were born in or descend from Jews across a wide area of the globe including Turkey, Greece, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq and Iran. It may be the only local synagogue with a website that offers kosher baklava made at the synagogue (visit

In the Sephardic tradition, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated with a seder with symbolic foods and individual blessings for them. Keter Torah’s Rabbi Sasson Natan, who is descended from Iraqi Jews, says the seder tradition comes from the oral Torah. “Everything goes after the mouth,” he says. “That is why it is important all prayers and wishes be stated in a positive form because how we orate is how we live going forward.”

The blessings for different items may vary depending on the tradition of a particular country, but Rabbi Sasson, as he prefers to be called, says the seders are quite similar among different Sephardic communities. Seder foods include dates, beets, black-eyed beans or string beans, pumpkin or zucchini, pomegranate seeds, and a small cooked piece of a sheep’s head or fish head, which is not eaten. The blessing before eating pomegranate asks that “our mitzvot (good deeds) be as numerous as the pomegranate seeds.”

According to Rabbi Sasson’s seder guide, the sheep’s head symbolizes the idea that Jews should be “leaders, not stragglers.” The words “‘be a head and not a tail’ are based on a pasuk (verse) in Devorim or Deuteronomy 28, 13.” Keter Torah held its Rosh Hashanah seder this Wednesday.

Holidays In Kenya
The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, located in Kenya, is more than 100 years old. Today, the congregation has 150 member families who meet in a beautiful building dating from the 1950s, located on the previous site of the congregation’s first synagogue, opened in 1912.

Two native Detroiters, Andrew and Ashleigh Miller, live and work in Nairobi where they will celebrate the High Holidays this year; Andrew previously served in the Peace Corps in Kenya. They are part of a small Jewish community and know Ashley Myers, head of Nairobi’s Jewish community. Myers describes the Hebrew Congregation as a “microcosm of the Diaspora” with both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. Eighty percent are from Israel while many recent arrivals are from the U.S. Smaller numbers are from Great Britain and a range of other countries.

High holiday services are conducted in the synagogue and a communal Rosh Hashanah dinner and break-the-fast meal are held in an adjacent building. Myers says that the Rosh Hashanah meal includes “a mixture of Israeli and traditional food starting with Israeli salads, tahini, hummus, [then] chicken soup with matzah balls and roast chicken.” Matzah and matzah meal are difficult to import, he says, so the community relies on Jewish travelers to bring them to Nairobi.

Myers, who is British, originally worked in the hotel business in Kenya but now serves as operations director for Wells Fargo, a security company in Kenya.

Founders of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation came from Europe and South Africa beginning in 1899; some emigrated to Kenya during the 1930s to escape the Nazis. A few were farmers but most opened or worked in retail or other businesses. Many descendants of the early settlers continue as active synagogue members.

New Israeli Tradition
In Israel, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur traditions represent the population’s diverse religious and national affiliations.

According to Arye (Larry) Schwartz, a former Detroiter who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 40 years, most Israelis go to shul for the High Holidays, especially on Yom Kippur, and have family meals together. He says that four foods are popular among groups of all religious and national origins — gefilte fish, pomegranates, dates and honey.

“Sephardim and Ashkenazim have very different ways and prayers for the holidays, as well as different foods. Within each sector there are also many, many differences,” he says.

“For example, the Moroccan Jews and their customs are very different from the Yemenite Jews and their customs. The Ethiopians have totally different foods; however, their special prayers almost no longer exist as they have been absorbed into the Sephardic prayers. A with a small number of Ethiopians are part of the Chassidic community.”

Schwartz says that secular Israelis have developed some traditions of their own. On Yom Kippur, many children now enjoy a special bike ride. “Children fill the streets and ride up and down because there simply are no cars on the road, even in secular neighborhoods,” he explains. He points out that riding a bicycle on Yom Kippur is not approved from a religious viewpoint. However, he says that in secular and mixed neighborhoods (with non-religious and Orthodox residents), many children of all backgrounds look forward to taking over the streets with bikes, skateboards and rollerblades.

Closer to home, Jay Katz, executive director of the Windsor Jewish Community Center, says the Windsor congregations are Ashkenazi but that the community includes some Sephardim as well. Customs are similar to those in the U.S.

“There is a tradition of opening our homes for the holiday to visitors and having kugel, brisket and gefilte fish. The food often depends on where the landsman comes from,” he explains. Katz adds that Windsor synagogues welcome all to their services, especially students, without selling tickets as some congregations in Toronto and the Detroit area do.

Including honey in High Holiday meals, whether used for dipping apples, in honey cake or in baklava, symbolizes the universal Jewish hope for a sweet new year — a concept that transcends geographic and denominational boundaries.

Shari S. Cohen and Genia Gazman Contributing Writers

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