The Four Corners celebrates Jewish new year at Congregation Har Shalom in Durango

Sam Ribakoff
Farmington Daily Times

DURANGO — Worshipers at Congregation Har Shalom in Durango wished each other “shana tova,” happy new year in Hebrew, as the new year — year 5780 — began when the sun set on Sept. 29.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, follows an ancient lunisolar calendar, that usually places the start of the new year in fall.

For Jews around the world it’s a chance to meditate on the past year, apologize for wrongs and slights directed towards friends, family, and neighbors, pray for peace, and to come together as a community.

“Rosh Hashanah provides a chance to do deep personal reflection,” said Farmington resident Laura Marshall, “it gives us a chance to reflect on how we’re living our lives with the values we hold dear.”

Gill Palley and Linda Gross drove from Fort Defiance, Arizona, on a motorcycle to attend Rosh Hashanah Jewish new year services at Congregation Har Shalom in Durango.

For some, finding a gathering in the Four Corners region to celebrate the day is a journey in itself.

MORE:Rosh Hashanah 2019: When it starts and what this Jewish celebration really means

Gill Palley and Linda Gross drive three hours on a motorcycle from Fort Defiance, Arizona, to Durango to attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Congregation Har Shalom every year. They said Durango has the closest Jewish house of worship to their home in Fort Defiance.

Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days

Ten days after Rosh Hashanah, another important Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, begins. The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is alternatively known as the High Holidays, or the High Holy Days, or the Days of Awe. Both holidays are two of the most important holidays in Judaism.  

“Rosh Hashanah connects me to my family and my culture” said Gill Palley, “this is where I feel at home.”

“When we’re here at High Holy Days, we’re here as a community,” said Lisa Smith, the Spiritual Director at Congregation Har Shalom, as she began conducting Rosh Hashanah services.

Congregation Har Shalom doesn’t have a rabbi, an ordained leader of Jewish services, but Smith’s role is parallel to that of a rabbi. Smith leads religious and ritual services with a sense of humor and an eye towards building and maintaining the sometimes far flung Jewish community in the Four Corners region.

Spiritual leader Lisa Smith concludes evening Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Har Shalom in Durango.

During Rosh Hashanah services Smith leads the congregation in prayers in both Hebrew and English, and occasionally asks congregants to read various prayers and poems to the congregation.

Songs and hymns are performed by a small four-person choir, with instrumental accompaniment by an acoustic guitarist and a mandolin player.

Smith asks new congregants to introduce themselves to the congregation, and later asks all congregants to walk around and apologize to friends and family members present for possible wrongs, either real or perceived, that congregants might have done to each other throughout the previous year.

“It’s good to be in a community,” Smith said, “because you know that you’re not alone. We know we can all do better, be better people.”

The Jewish community in the Four Corners

Aztec resident Merv Bergal was involved with creating Congregation Har Shalom in the 1990s. Before Har Shalom, Bergal said there wasn’t really any communal space for Jews to practice religious services in the area.

“Before the synagogue the community was very small,” Bergal said, using a term that refers to a Jewish house of worship, “We went from place to place, parks, houses, renting out churches for services.”

From left: Merv Bergal, one of the founders, and current board members of Congregation Har Shalom, with Spiritual Leader Lisa Smith, Lisa Deskins, Naomi Azulai, Kain Eggler, and Elliot Brechner, at Rosh Hashanah  services in Durango.

Since the Congregation bought the building they are currently in, Bergal says a Jewish community has begun to form around the space.

Once the Congregation was built, Bergal was able to not only have his son go through the first bar mitzvah service, an important coming of age ritual for both Jewish boys and girls around the age of 13, but Bergal himself became the first adult to be bar mitzvahed at Har Shalom, as he didn’t have a chance to participate in the ceremony when he was 13 years old and living in Duluth, Minnesota.

“We’re living in such divisive times, and it’s good to be in a community,” said Lisa Smith, in reference to recent incidents of antisemitic violence across the country, including the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in October of 2018. “Hatred, bigotry, or prejudice, the way you can deal with it is to teach people. To spread the love. It makes you feel like you have to be empathetic to everyone.”

The last prayer of the night concluded: “We pray for healing of our people. We pray for healing of the land, and peace for every race and nation, every child, every woman, every man.”

Before congregants left, they dipped apple slices into honey, symbolizing the hope for the beginning of a sweet new year.

Sam Ribakoff is a visual journalist for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 or email at