Finding meaning during the High Holidays


When Ben Packman, then 8, told his rabbi he wanted to play the shofar, neither realized what a blast Packman would have, nor could they have predicted the duration of what has become his long-running temple gig.

This marks the sixth year that Ben, now 13, is blowing the shofar for High Holiday services at Temple Israel. For the first four years, as he shaped his reputation as a shofar wunderkind with robust lung power, Ben was paired with other shofar blowers. This Yom Kippur, for the second consecutive year, he will blow solo for adult services at his congregation, once again using Rabbi Mark Shook’s shofar.


While blowing the shofar is the one aspect of the High Holidays Ben looks most forward to, there are other customs and traditions that he, and other Jewish St. Louisans say are important to them as they reflect upon the coming year.

Ben cut his shofar-blowing teeth, so to speak, on a pint-size shofar his family had. He received his own shofar as a bar mitzvah present, though he still feels more comfortable blowing Shook’s.

A strong swimmer and an erstwhile trumpet player, Ben is the son of Creve Coeur residents Diane and Michael Packman. A graduate of the Saul Mirowitz Day School – Reform Jewish Academy and currently an eighth-grader at Parkway Northeast Middle School, Ben takes his shofar blowing, and his religion, seriously.

“Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are some of my favorite (Jewish holidays),” Ben says. “I like the services. I like the speakers. I just really like my religion.

“It’s really exciting. I love doing something for my community,” Ben says, adding that he enjoys the sense of fulfillment that shofar blowing brings him. “And I love everybody saying, ‘Good job.'”

Argentina-born Cecilia Soibel who immigrated to the United States 37 years ago with her husband, Peter, likewise equates the High Holidays with positive thoughts. “You look forward to the shofar. You listen to the words from the Torah and you’re hoping to have a very sweet New Year,” she says.

Though every year may not be as sweet as one wishes, she continues, you still begin the year “wanting it to be the best year in your life.” A Ballwin resident, Soibel is a member of Traditional Congregation of Creve Coeur. She continues to run her late husband’s plumbing business.

As Gila Cohen Jacobsen of University City thinks about the meaning of the High Holidays, she does so for the first time as the mother of three. Jacobsen gave birth nearly two months ago to Leon, whose big brothers are Shmuel, nearly 10, and Meir, 7. A graphic artist and a painter of challah and matzo covers, Jacobsen is married to Daniel, a full-time nursing student who makes time to teach Torah and piano. The family belongs to Agudas Israel synagogue in University City.

For Jacobsen, spiritual preparation for the High Holidays is of prime importance. She listens to personal-growth tapes by rabbis and rebbetzins, and reads inspiring books. In the Hebrew calendar, she points out, the two months before Tishrei, in which Rosh Hashana begins on the first day and Yom Kippur on the 10th day, are Av and Elul. Av is the month when the destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem occurred. However, “av” in Hebrew means “father.”

“So yes, Av is a time of sadness,” Jacobsen notes. “But God was saying, “Come close to me, I’m your father.'”

The four letters of the next month, Elul, are an acronym in Hebrew for the first letters in the phrase, “I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me.” “So we’re not just father and child,” Jacobsen says. “We’re in love. We’re beloved. I’m very excited about that. Our relationship with God should be mirrored in our relationship with people. We should be beloved to one another.”

For Jacobsen, character improvement is another High Holiday focus. She and her husband remind their sons to steer clear of lashon ha-ra, or degrading speech that could hurt another person. Instead, they encourage use of lashon tov, or saying nice things, positive things, and seeing the best in one another.

And despite lessons to be learned, at least one item on the Jacobsens’ High Holiday table never fails to get a laugh, at least among the adults guests. Observing a custom followed by other observant Jews, Jacobsen fills celery strips with peanut butter and raisins. Then she proclaims, “May you get a ‘raisin celery!'”

CAPTION: Ben Packman, 13, practices sounding the shofar. This marks the sixth year that Ben has played the shofar at High Holiday services at Temple Israel. Family photo