Two days before Erev Rosh Hashana, which marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, also called the Ten Days of Repentence, Rabbi Don Singer is asked what preparations he is making for the High Holy Days. “I’m vacuuming the floor,” he answers.
Even rabbis have to come clean.
His in-the-moment response is in keeping with a faith that celebrates the here and now. “Now is one of the names of God,” says the rabbi cum sensei who sees a path to enlightenment that embraces both the contemplative traditions of Jewish wisdom and the teachings of Zen Buddhism. Singer, who feels that these two disciplines can nourish one another, begins his services with the instruction and practice of quiet meditation.
For all Jews, the call to God begins on Rosh Hashana, the New Year, with the sounding of the ram’s horn. “The Shofar is the symbol of awakening,” writes Singer. “The meditation that introduces the sounding of the Shofar begins, ‘Awake you slumberers.’ When you are responsive . . . it happens. You feel at rest, present.”
The rabbi often quotes from the Song of Songs, “My heart was awake, but I was asleep.” He interprets the passage: “The song is a dream of wholeness which the dreamer could know intimately, if only she would awake. Why do we sleep, when our true nature calls us to awake?” He suggests that it is because of the insistent preoccupations of the self.
“That busy, busy, busy life and mind of ours sometimes makes us asleep to the heart of the present.”
While he notes the many different approaches to Judaism, among them the “painfully rational” thoughts of early 20th century Reform and Conservative movements, he says that what is shared is “not knowing. Instead of always bringing the past to the present, the Jewish contemplative tradition looks closely at one’s life, (in order) to have time for it. The secret to this approach is not knowing, so that one can be open to the present.”
Yom Kippur concludes the Days of Awe. Regarding the 10 days of reconciliation, “representing all encompassing time,” the rabbi says, “Atonement is not only about guilt and forgiveness. In its fullness, it is the total movement of awakening. Of ending the cycle of travail and going beyond to wisdom and heart in daily life. The most accurate expression of what we mean by atonement is ‘At One.'”
On Yom Kippur, Rabbi Singer will lead his congregation, Shir Hadash, in services at Zen Center of Los Angeles, with which he has been affiliated for 23 years. Shir Hadash means new song; its feminine form, shira hadasha, appears in the texts of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Psalms.
Following a degree in English literature and Hebrew from UCLA, Rabbi Singer entered graduate studies at Hebrew Union College, where he was ordained in 1964. After serving as a congregational rabbi, he joined Hillel as rabbi at large for the greater Los Angeles region. Hillel serves college and university students worldwide.
While with Hillel, he began Sabbath and holiday services in Malibu 28 years ago. “In a way, I was Malibu’s first rabbi,” he says. “We held them outdoors, on the ground, with the children perched overhead in the trees.” Since that time, Rabbi Singer has led frequent retreats and has conducted High Holiday services here at the Michael Landon Community Center. He and his wife, Virginia, are longtime Malibu residents.
In November, he will be a leader of the Bearing Witness retreat at the site of the Auschwitz/Birkenau death camps near Kracow, Poland. The interfaith assembly representing traditions from around the globe is hosted by the Zen Peacemaker Order, founded by Roshi Bernie Glassman and Sensei Sandra Jishu Holmes. It marks the rabbi’s third annual retreat.
For information on Yom Kippur services as well as the Bearing Witness retreat,
call 456-5323 or visit the Zen Center of Los Angeles online at