Ted Struhl prayed solemnly for his son -- not unusual for a synagogue service, except for the chicken he was waving over Sammy's head.
"This is my exchange, this is my substitute," Struhl prayed outside Chabad-Lubavitch of Boynton Beach, where the service known as Kapparot drew several dozen members Tuesday night. "This rooster shall go to its death and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace."
The little-seen ceremony, going back to at least the ninth century, was a first for the decade-old Orthodox synagogue. A preparation for Yom Kippur, which starts at sundown today, Kapparot uses live chickens to symbolize atonement and the need for repentance.
In the ceremony, participants circle the creatures over their heads three times, reciting the prayer. The chickens are later slaughtered by a kosher butcher, and the meat donated to the poor.
Kapparot also was performed in several other area Chabad Lubavitch centers, including the Hebrew Academy in Margate and Chabad of Southwest Broward in Cooper City.
Struhl, a real estate agent, said the observance made him introspective.
"The chicken represents your life. It makes you reflect on the year, what you did right or wrong," said Struhl, who attended the ritual with his wife, Phyllis, as well as Sammy. "Makes you think about life and death."
That made Kapparot a perfect lead-in to Yom Kippur, when tradition says that everyone's fate is sealed for the year. From tonight to sundown tomorrow, believers will examine their lives, pray for pardon from sins and resolve to live more righteously.
Despite the bustle of squawking chickens, exuberant children and clicking cameras in the parking lot Tuesday night, Rabbi Sholom Ciment kept control, as the worshipers lined up for the chickens they had purchased for $18 each, which also will go to charity.
"You can pray in Hebrew or English; God understands both; but you must say it," the rabbi admonished, before he and his assistants opened the yellow plastic cages holding the pure white birds.
The ceremony carries an echo of L'Azazel, the scapegoat atonement ritual in ancient Jerusalem, Ciment said. But rather than paying for sins, Kapparot simply reminds people of their need to repent.
"It's meant to make us aware that our fate could have been the same as the chicken's," the rabbi said. "But if we atone and are cleansed, God willing, we will be inscribed in the Book of Life."
The Kapparot clearly had a deep effect on Peggy Levy, even though she had done it before.
"It made me feel mortal," she said quietly. "I understood that my time could be up any second. Repentance is a sobering thing. We're all here to learn from ourselves, and from each other, and to grow as spiritual beings."
James D. Davis can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4730.