A project called PostRegret asks local Jews to anonymously send in their sincerest regrets of the past year or years, to be displayed during Yom Kippur services at Hillel at the University of Washington.
The confessions come in anonymously, one by one.
“I’m sorry I lied.”
“I do not call my grandma as much as I should.”
Robert Beiser reads them, feeling surprised and grateful at the candor of the people who wrote them. At the University of Washington Hillel, a Jewish campus organization, these submissions are coming in online and by postcard, small quiet acknowledgments of regret that Beiser and other organizers hope will become a powerful project for the Jewish High Holy Days, which begin at sundown tonight.
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The project, called PostRegret, asks local Jews to anonymously send in their most sincere regrets of the past year or years. The submissions will be gathered into a display to go up on a gallery wall at Hillel shortly before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins sundown Oct. 8.
“The most impressive thing that’s happened is seeing the range of people’s thoughts and reflections on the year,” Beiser said. “Every one that’s come in was something we never expected someone to admit.”
Beiser and Josh Furman, another staff member at Hillel, came up with the idea, inspired by a project called PostSecret. That project began in 2004 when a Maryland man asked people to submit anonymous postcards to him with a secret they had never shared, to be displayed for an art project.
Since then, PostSecret has become a phenomenon, with 1,000 people a week still sending postcards. The project has generated four books, traveling exhibits and a regularly updated Web site that’s logged more than 183 million visitors.
Furman became a fan of the Web site and books, deeply moved and fascinated by some of the secrets. “It is hard to not feel connected” to some of the senders, and “it really makes it clear how many of us go through life holding things in,” he said.
Furman and Beiser wondered if there was a way to take that idea and make it relevant to Jewish life, to create a project that would connect with younger Jews.
They thought of the High Holy Days, the 10 days that begin with Rosh Hashana, or the Jewish New Year. It’s considered the most holy time in the Jewish calendar, a period of introspection when Jews are to seek forgiveness from those they’ve wronged and from God. At the Yom Kippur service at the end of the 10 days, Jews gather together to repent sins of the past year and start afresh.
PostRegret organizers have gotten the word out through newsletters and will be handing out blank postcards at Hillel’s High Holy Day services. Several dozen submissions have already come in.
Some are very specific, talking, for example, about particular conversations with an uncle.
Others are universally relatable: “I regret moving away and not staying in touch with all my close friends.” “I am sorry that I have held grudges.”
Beiser said he was struck that some of the regrets might seem like simple, everyday things. But “it’s something that sticks with people, holds them down as a piece of regret. That made the project impactful.”
Furman likes that people will be able to read each other’s transgressions and, as a community, repent and resolve to change for the better.
Yet not everyone thinks the project quite fits the High Holy Days.
The essence of repentance during this time is to admit your failings and personally seek forgiveness from the people you’ve hurt, said Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle and Bellevue. Submitting a regret anonymously, and online, “diminishes the power of the traditional process of repentance,” he said. “It kind of defeats the purpose.”
“We in Judaism purposely avoid intermediaries for confessions because we don’t want to feel absolved without confronting our mistakes and the people we’ve hurt,” he said.
But Rabbi Daniel Brenner, director of Birthright Israel NEXT, an organization geared toward young adults, thinks the PostRegret project actually helps emphasize those interpersonal ethics at the core of Yom Kippur.
Birthright Israel NEXT is one of the PostRegret project sponsors, along with Hillel’s Jconnect, which is geared toward Jews in their 20s to early 30s.
Yom Kippur services traditionally involve reciting a litany of regrets from a liturgy, but Brenner said in some communities, people used to gather in a room to ask forgiveness of each other.
The PostRegret project revives some of that personal atmosphere and feeling of connection, he says, in that people reading the admissions will be able to relate to, and feel compassion for, the writer. “You want to support them, be with them,” he said.
And the project is a way for people who may not immediately feel the power of the traditional liturgy to “connect to the powerful work that the holidays take us through.”
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org