Whether or not the scent of meatballs and calzones has faded by the time the sun sets on Tuesday night, Kol Nidrei services will go on at Manducatis Rustica in Long Island City. The popular Italian restaurant is one of several unconventional venues hosting High Holiday services in the New York area this year.
Over the last few years, as surveys show that attendance at traditional synagogues is continuing a decades-long slide, innovative rabbis and congregations have been experimenting with pop-up services and High Holiday programming in concert halls, public parks and even bars. The experiment is transforming secular spaces into venues for worship in an effort to appeal to the most synagogue-averse: typically millennials who feel that stepping into a temple is so so last century.
And the organizers of these services say the change of scenery is working.
“I see this as a wonderful expansion of what the High Holidays can mean to people and a great way to reach out to people who, for one reason or another, are hesitant about entering a Jewish space,” said Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who is co-leading a service this year at Brooklyn Bowl, a bowling alley cum live music spot in Williamsburg.
The service is run by Because Jewish, an organization that creates alternative Jewish experiences with a musical or artistic flair. The last three years of services at Brooklyn Bowl have consistently brought in about 300 people. For many service-goers, this will not be their first time walking into Brooklyn Bowl, a space already well known among Brooklyn’s music lovers and named one of the best music clubs in America by Rolling Stone.
In fact, many of those praying in bars, concert halls and restaurants this year will likely have spent far more time in those venues than in synagogues over the past year. A 2013 Pew survey of the American Jewish community showed that Jews between the ages of 18-29 are the least likely to be members of synagogues compared to other age groups. As millennials have become increasingly disaffiliated from religious life, with a 2014 study showing that 35 percent of millennials are religiously unaffiliated, Rabbi Brenner and others are betting that alternative venues will make religious services more attractive.
“The venues are in some ways sacred sites for them in their life,” said Rabbi Brenner. “There’s a lot of power in bringing Jewish ritual to these sites.”
Rabbi Judith Hauptman, founder of the Ohel Ayalah pop-up synagogue and a pioneer of the alternative High Holiday service, has been offering free services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur since 2004.
Since her first services attracted around 440 people over the High Holidays, Ohel Ayalah has grown steadily; last year about 3,000 people participated in services across its three locations. This year’s Manhattan services will be held at the Flatiron district’s Prince George Ballroom, a refurbished hotel originally built in 1904. With two packed Kol Nidrei services scheduled back-to-back, the energy of the crowd is reminiscent of an audience at a concert.
“There is something exciting about showing up at Kol Nidrei at 8:30 on a Tuesday night and people are just lined up around the block,” said Rabbi Hauptman.
Her services have always been hosted in non-synagogue venues with services offered in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn is the only Jewish organization hosting services for Ohel Ayalah. The third location is the Long Island City Manducatis Rustica event. Rabbi Hauptman believes the choice of a neutral venue is essential to creating an accessible atmosphere for young unaffiliated Jews.
“Even when the synagogues open their doors to people who don’t pay membership or don’t pay anything at all, I don’t think those people feel comfortable walking into a synagogue,” said Rabbi Hauptman. “I think young people like being with other young people where it’s a level playing field, so I think that’s an attraction — they don’t have to cross the threshold of a synagogue.”
For Lab/Shul, which began offering High Holiday services in its signature “God-optional, everybody-friendly” style in 2013, this year’s services will be held at Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn. (Lab/Shul is part of the national, non-denominational Jewish Emergent Network of experimental congregations/communities.) Though congregants will have to pay more for tickets this year than in years past and will have a longer commute from Manhattan, Lab/Shul’s artistic director, Ezra Bookman, says the new location will be worth the schlep. Grand Prospect Hall, a South Slope venue that usually hosts weddings, galas and concerts, will allow participants to sit in concentric circles as they do for most Lab/Shul services throughout the year. The larger venue will also accommodate Lab/Shul’s children’s programming close to the main services, as well as its new teen program.
Though renting out the new location has forced Lab/Shul to raise its rates, officials have also unbundled tickets to allow service-goers to choose which services they want to attend. “We’ve really allowed for increased flexibility in terms of pricing so they can come for what they want to come,” said Bookman.
Even Chabad, long known for its no-strings-attached services, has been branching out from its traditional High Holiday offerings. Chabad of Park Slope is one of many Chabad houses around the world to offer a Shofar in the Park service on Rosh HaShanah, which includes shofar blowing followed by a tashlich service. It advertises the program, which began three years ago in Prospect Park, as an “alternative micro-service,” appealing to those who might not otherwise celebrate Rosh HaShanah.
“It’s a very neutral setting where people feel comfortable,” said Rabbi Menashe Wolf, associate director of Chabad of Park Slope. “A lot of people for whatever reason can’t or don’t make it to the traditional service and this is an opportunity for them.”
“Judaism is something that can be more integrated into [people’s] everyday life,” Rabbi Aaron Potek, founder of GatherDC, a community for young Jews in the Washington, D.C., area, told The Jewish Week. Rabbi Potek, who ran an alternative Yom Kippur program in a bar last year (there was no food or drink, nor will there be this year) that raised the hackles of some observers, believes a venue that’s already familiar to attendees is a major draw. “By having experiences outside of a synagogue, it prevents them from compartmentalizing their life as easily as when it’s in a synagogue that they don’t set foot in during the rest of the year,” the rabbi said.
Despite the criticism he received last year, Rabbi Potek is hosting another service in a different bar this year to accommodate an even larger crowd. “It sends a message that Judaism is actually meant to be lived in the world,” said Rabbi Potek. “It isn’t some foreign thing that takes place in some foreign place but is actually part of your everyday life, or could be.”