Closer To God, Far from Shul

Closer To God, Far from Shul

Steve Solinga, 47-year-old tax attorney and baal teshuvah for a few years, passed all the familiar places and all the familiar faces during his morning strolls on Rosh HaShanah last year.
Outside the Young Israel of New Rochelle, his congregation, he greeted his friends. “It felt funny walking past the shul when everybody was there,” he says.
Solinga didn’t stop walking until he reached a Chinese restaurant. Where he attended High Holy Days services.
The Flame, an outreach organization that had sponsored alternative Rosh HaShanah davening for a dozen years at various synagogues in Westchester, held the services for the first time last year in Eden Wok, a kosher restaurant a few blocks from Young Israel. Amid Chinese art posters on the wall and a sushi bar silent in the background, a few hundred worshippers took part in the beginner’s service led by Rabbi Mat Hoffman, a New Rochelle resident and founder of The Flame.
“We couldn’t find space in Westchester” in a more traditional site, Rabbi Hoffman explains. Other places, like synagogues with extra rooms, or Jewish schools, were booked; some probably didn’t want to host outsider’s services they saw as competition. The restaurant, the rabbi says, “was the only place that was closed” and available that day.
Coming to a neighborhood near you: funky High Holy Days services. It’s not only New Rochelle. And it’s not only a kosher restaurant.
This Rosh HaShanah, when the everyday Jews and the twice-a-year Jews pack the pews of synagogues, a growing number will show up at non-synagogue venues. Jewish organizations across the denominational spectrum sponsor yom tov services in mountain ranges and aboard ships, outdoors in forums and inside in comedy clubs.
Jewish history provides limited but impressive precedents for prayer in locations outside of a synagogue — the patriarch Isaac in a field when Rebecca approached for the first time, the kabbalist Yitzchak Luria greeting the Sabbath Queen in the fields of Safed, the minyans that have gathered for centuries in the shadow of the Western Wall.
In contemporary America, of course, the increasingly unconventional places for High Holy Days services give the worship a uniquely U.S. flavor.
Some Jews happen to find themselves away from home at yom tov, on a cruise, for instance, and join a worship service at sea. Rabbi David Baron, spiritual leader of a Los Angeles temple that serves the artistic community, works as a rabbinic placement director for two cruise lines.
Philosophical Statement
For some of the sponsoring groups, it’s simply a matter of logistics. The crowds they attract on Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur won’t fit into their usual spaces, so they turn to larger, rented ones like campgrounds or theaters (many mainstream congregations and schools do this), churches (the choice of several non-Orthodox congregations, including Rabbi Judith Hauptman’s Ohel Ayalah group in Manhattan) or museums (the National Jewish Outreach Program meets in the New York Historical Society).
“There are a lot more Jews than there are [seats in] shuls,” says Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, NJOP associate director.
For other groups, it’s a philosophical statement. Some people with tenuous Jewish roots, who aren’t members of a congregation and don’t feel comfortable walking into a synagogue, are more likely to show up at non-synagogue settings.
“If you are trying to attract people who are not regular synagogue-goers,” Rabbi Rosenbaum says, “they may feel more comfortable someplace else. There is hope that the [other] locations will be inspiring.”
“There are people who don’t want to come to a traditional structure because they don’t like tradition,” Rabbi Hoffman says. Hence his abbreviated, participatory service in a decidedly non-synagogue site. “We cater,” he says, “to both a traditional and non-traditional crowd.”
Rabbi Niles Goldstein, a de facto spokesman for the young-and-searching segment of the Jewish community, calls the phenomenon of off-site High Holy Days services “a symptom of a problem … a reaction to the fact that so many Jewish men and women find American Jewish worship lame. It really doesn’t touch their hearts and souls in a significant way.”
Rabbi Goldstein, author of “Gonzo Judaism” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006), conducts Rosh HaShanah services in a standard setting, his New Shul in Manhattan, but in a non-standard way. Instead of a rabbi’s sermons, there is taped Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen music —“very moving, very challenging songs.” The congregants discuss the lyrics. Or there is a staged reading of part of a play that has an appropriate, reflective theme.
The playing of music, Rabbi Goldstein observes, “would only be acceptable in the non-halachic community” that allows music to be played on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.
The decision to veer from tradition on Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur, he says, assumes a built-in risk, that the medium, in this case the atypical location or changes in ritual practice, will take precedence over the holidays’ message. “It’s very important to separate substance from shtick.” He doesn’t name names, but says some of the programs that offer radically different options for High Holy Days services “are shtick, more geared to entertainment than real true inspiration. The real challenge is to figure out what the right balance is.”
He defends his music-themed services. “This is not shtick,” he says. “This is a way to open up the service to the people in away that speaks to them.”
Rabbi Baron faces a similar challenge at the Temple for the Arts in L.A. Housed in the Wilshire Theater, a 2,000-seat, one-time vaudeville house, the temple under the rabbi has become “a center of arts and culture for the entire community,” with several A-list showbiz members of the Jewish community on its membership list. On Rosh HaShanah they fill the auditorium for services that include interpretive dancing, jazz presentations, dramatized stories and staged lighting.
“We’re about the arts,” Rabbi Baron says. “People come to the synagogue from all over Southern California. They feel very at home in the theater.”
Closer To God Outdoors
For some Jews, Rosh HaShanah means backpacks.
Groups that offer al fresco services find a natural constituency in people who declare that they feel closer to God when they are in touch with nature.
“When celebrating Rosh HaShanah, I want to see the stars, feel the wind and hear the birds,” says Rabbi Efraim Eisen, who led services in the Gettell Amphitheater of South Hadley, Mass., while serving as chaplain of Mount Holyoke College.
The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation is hosting its own alternative service this year. It will hold its annual erev yom tom family service, for the first time, at Oregon Ridge Park, a municipal facility, preceded by a picnic and concert.
The free event is open to the public.
A month before the holidays, 400 people had signed up. “I expect to have double that” by the time Rosh HaShanah arrives, says Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen. “I’m not surprised. For some people, just coming to the synagogue building is somewhat daunting. To take it outside is going to allow some of those folks to reconnect with their tradition. We’re trying to capture some of the awe and majesty of Rosh HaShanah in a natural place.”
On the Ten Days of Penitence, which rank with Passover as the most observed part of the Jewish calendar for wide parts of the Jewish community, this trend — no one keeps records on how many services take place in untraditional places — provides an insight into the evolving, eclectic nature of American Jewry. It’s another sign that many Jews in this country are reshaping the style, and in many cases, the content, of the High Holy Days liturgy into one over which they hold more control.
“Thirty percent of Jews are content in synagogues,” says Rabbi Jamie Korngold, alluding to national affiliation figures — that means that 70 percent aren’t. So the Westchester native who lives in Colorado formed “Adventure Rabbi: Synagogue w/o walls,” which brings a Jewish experience to the skiing-hiking-outdoorsy crowd. “Synagogue is boring for a lot of us. You sit there and the rabbi lectures at you.”
She and her staff lead Shabbat programs and hikes in Colorado’s high mountain desert.
“We do Jewish stuff outdoors,” she says. This year Rabbi Korngold will lead a Rosh HaShanah retreat at Estes Park, a national park and forest in the Rockies north of Denver.
“These are not your parents’ High Holiday services!” the Adventure Rabbi Web site states. “Leave your fancy clothing at home and come pray 8,000 feet closer to God!”
Mostly singles and young couples will come, Rabbi Korngold says. “People who are spiritually connected to the outdoors.”
Not all approve of outdoor services.
“The rabbis [who made rulings on Jewish law] were not in favor of davening outside, because there are too many distractions,” Rabbi Rosenbaum says.
Does the movement toward alternative services and venues threaten established synagogues?
“I don’t think it’s taking away from shuls,” Rabbi Rosenbaum says. Rather, he says, it brings into the Jewish fold people who had remained outside.
“Ninety percent of the people who come to our stuff,” says Adventure Rabbi’s Rabbi Korngold, “are not involved in the Jewish community in any other way. They just wouldn’t go.”
The Adventure Rabbi participants stay in lodges; the dress code on yom tov is “casual clothes with a tallis.” Worship services are held a half-mile away, in an outdoor chapel in a clearing; wooden benches are arranged around a wooden stage. The two-hour service begins with a shofar call. Behind the chapel, the rabbi says, “are the huge peaks. You see posada pines and some aspens. You hear the elks start to bugle.”
Rabbi Korngold says she has the participants unroll an entire Torah scroll in the field and read the creation story. There is singing and discussion. “The service is accessible. It’s very experiential.”
Following the service come such programs as hikes and biking, yoga and crafts, watercolor workshops and lectures on physics.
‘Off-The-Wall Idea’
“Rosh HaShanah is our pinnacle program,” Rabbi Korngold says. “It carries forward,” generating participants’ interest for other Adventure Rabbi activities. “They’re so jazzed about being Jewish. They can’t wait for the next event.”
In New Rochelle, Rabbi Hoffman of The Flame says about 300 people come to his annual beginner’s High Holy Days services.
With no synagogues available for this year, someone had suggested Eden Wok. “What an off-the-wall idea,” the rabbi thought. Intrigued, he contacted the restaurant’s owners. “They were extremely accommodating.”
The novelty of services in a kosher restaurant was not universally appealing, says Rabbi Hoffman, who works as a litigation lawyer in Manhattan and has done Jewish outreach for nearly 40 years. “I think it turned off more people than it turned on.” With no other choice, the restaurant was rented and people came.
“The funny thing,” Rabbi Hoffman says, is “I don’t like Chinese food.” This, despite the stereotype about Jews and Chinese food.
The location, he says, drew the predictable jokes, like “Do I get a free egg roll?”
The tables were cleared from the serving area, rows of chairs were set up, supporters loaned Torah scrolls, Young Israel provided an ark and a mechitza curtain ran down the middle of the impromptu sanctuary.
“It was SRO,” Rabbi Hoffman says.
This year, as an inducement for people to come on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, which normally experiences a drop-off in the number of worshippers, he will offer a meal at the restaurant, also at no charge.
“We have to make sure that the venue doesn’t become the star,” the rabbi cautions.
Steve Solinga, a frequent participant in Jewish Flame activities, says he and his family will go to both days’ services, and stay for the meal. “No question about it.”
“We’re going to talk to Hashem,” he says. “The location isn’t important. It didn’t distract me” last year.
Solinga’s friends heard laudatory reports about the 2006 Jewish Flame services. “I told them how great it was.
“Now all the people know about it,” he says. Some of his friends may wish to join him in the kosher restaurant this year. “It’s going to be a question if there is enough room.”

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