WESTFIELD — Congregation Ahavas Achim marks the holiest day in the Jewish calendar tonight under the guidance of a new leader.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sundown, concluding at sundown Thursday. Rabbi Dawn Rose will lead three services during the holy day, after having only recently joined the Westfield congregation as its new spiritual leader.
Rabbi Rose originally comes from a small town in northern California, where she was raised as a Baptist before making her conversion to Judaism. She said she chose to convert when she was living in San Francisco during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“I decided that I needed a change, or more structure, or a way of responding,” said Rose.
She chose to convert to Judaism in particular because her great-grandfather was Jewish, and she saw it as a religion that values law and structure, something she felt she and her community needed at that time.
“In Judaism, everything is based on law rather than love, or how you feel at the time,” said Rose, “It had consistency, and I was seeing a lot of inconsistency with AIDS.”
The HIV virus at the time was poorly understood, and in some cases blatantly ignored by government officials at all levels.
Instead of being ordained right away, Rose chose to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she received a Ph.D. in philosophy, and subsequently taught philosophy in graduate school. She was later ordained in New York City at another seminary, and went on to lead a small congregation in New Hampshire.
She worked remotely with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania, moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, for Temple Emmanuel, and then taught at a high school in Worcester for kids in recovery from drug and alcohol use.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, took place while she was attending rabbinical school in New York. Some members of her congregation died in the attacks.
In the immediate aftermath, and for years after, as innocent American Muslims were targeted by those who blamed the entire religion for the actions of a group of extremists, Rose and her congregation responded by bringing in a Muslim man to explain the religion, the origins of Jihad and related terrorism, and to simply bring together two hurting communities.
“It was a wonderful evening to repair relations,” said Rose, who later taught a class about Islam to help members of the Jewish community better understand it.
Rose is also a published author, most recently publishing “Holy Moriah: A Kabalah” in December 2020. It is a historical fiction book about the fight against religious fanaticism. The first half takes place in Jerusalem and is about the disputed site of what is today known as the El Aksa Mosque, located on the mountain of Moriah. The second half is about trying to stop an American lynch mob that has set out to kill an immigrant. The book is available on Amazon.
Rose said she chose to come to Westfield after having considered herself “semi-retired.” She had been looking for a small congregation to lead, and saw an ad from Ahavas Achim seeking a spiritual leader. Rose applied and was almost immediately accepted.
She said she had conducted Rosh Hashanah services Sept. 7 in a hybrid-virtual format from the interfaith center at Westfield State University, which she said worked very well as a method of gathering while the pandemic continues. Some members of the congregation attend in person, while others can participate via Zoom.