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At 102, Commack woman holds fast to Yom Kippur tradition

In preparation for Yom Kippur, Helen Stemple, a

In preparation for Yom Kippur, Helen Stemple, a 102-year-old resident at the Gurwin Jewish Fay J. Lindner Residences in Commack, on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, holds a painted sculpture she made depicting a Rabbi. Stemple has a full schedule of activities, including assisting at the Yom Kippur service and fasting on the holiest day of the Jewish year. Credit: Barry Sloan

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar -- the Day of Atonement when observant Jews fast, pray to God for forgiveness and to be cleansed of sin -- begins at sunset Wednesday.

And for 102-year-old Helen Stemple, it is yet another year to think about being a good person.

Stemple lives in the Gurwin Jewish Fay J. Lindner Residences, an assisted living community in Commack where services for its residents take place in its own on-site synagogue. And despite her age and the contrary urgings of her son and daughter, the retired New York City junior high health and physical education teacher intends to fast.

"They say, 'Please don't fast,' " she said, sitting in her two-room apartment where family photos and artwork line walls and shelves. "I say, 'If I can manage I will . . .' It's a cleansing thing if you can manage to go through the actual fast. It's a way of atoning for things you may or may not have done."

The 10 days from Rosh Hashanah -- the Jewish New Year -- to Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe, or the Days of Repentance. It is a period of introspection, repentance, a time to ask and give forgiveness for wrongs committed or received, to perform charitable acts and be judged by God.

For many rabbis it is a time for sermons with themes about life's meaning, and deepening purpose and spirituality.

For Stemple, it is about being an ethical, moral person. "It's a new beginning, when everything has been accomplished for the old year and now you have to start thinking about what kind of person you were, and how to be a better person. You are responsible not just for yourself, but for your fellow man."

And when Yom Kippur is over, she said, "you are supposed to feel like you've done the right thing and hopefully you will carry on in that vein in the coming year."

Herman Gancz, 87, is another resident at the assisted living community who will take part in the Yom Kippur services. They are "very nice," although not the same as those his family observed in Romania before the Holocaust, when his father, mother and three younger siblings lost their lives in Nazi extermination camps.

He was 13 when he and a brother were separated from their mother for work as slave labor. Both survived the war, and Gancz emigrated to the United States where he worked as a baker and raised a family. Now, he continues the traditions he was raised in by his parents.

"It would have been their wish to continue the tradition," he said. "It means a lot to me. This is the day of Jewish life to talk to God to forgive you and ask for a long life."

The joyous festival holiday of Sukkot, or feast of tabernacles, follows Yom Kippur, and Stemple is already busy painting plaster leaves to help decorate the community's sukkah, a temporary structure adorned with festive fruits, leaves and palm fronds.

The Jewish holidays and the traditions associated with them have been part of her life as long as she can remember. In her early childhood in Brooklyn, she said, at Yom Kippur her parents would wave a chicken over their heads to receive their sins before it was ritually slaughtered and donated to charity.

And for years, she said, she was "the Perle Mesta" (a legendary Washington, D.C., hostess) of holiday entertaining, when dinners on the eves of the holidays bring together family and friends. The eve before Rosh Hashanah this year was spent with her son's family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Hauppauge, she said.

Now, she said she doesn't give much thought to the number of her years. "I just go on with things the way I have always done, and I'm thankful."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the Washington, D.C., hostess.

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