New Riffs On The New Year

New Riffs On The New Year

As worshipers demand fresh approaches, more congregations are improvising and experimenting with High Holiday services.

One night a year ago Jamie Schorr, a jazz devotee, and his wife descended a staircase to a basement club in the West Village. The couple stepped inside the low-ceilinged room, took a seat at one of the benches arranged around the dimly lit room and noticed a drummer, pianist and bass player onstage.

The Schorrs weren’t at Small’s Jazz Club for a concert. They were there for Rosh HaShanah services.

Several dozen worshipers, most of them unaffiliated Jews, some dressed casually, others formally, sat on benches and chairs and bar stools around the club, which is known in jazz circles for its spirit of experimentation and openness. Rabbi Steven Blane, founder of New York’s Sim Shalom “Online Synagogue” — the rabbi leads weekly Shabbat services over the Internet from his Upper West Side apartment — stood onstage at a music stand next to the trio of Israeli musicians during the initial jazz service, explaining what the words and holiday rituals meant.

It was, Schorr says, spiritual jazz, a theological reflection of the music genre’s improvisational style.

This year, the Schorrs, who are in their mid-50s, are going back. And in an indication of how the unorthodox service is catching on, Rabbi Blane is holding his second High Holy Days Jazz Services in the larger-capacity Stand-Up NY comedy club, on the first day of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur (tickets for each service are $36; simshalomcom.)

Read More: Some More High Holidays Innovation

The jazz services aren’t the only non-traditional ones offered in the coming High Holy Days season, which begins with Rosh HaShanah on the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 4. As fewer American Jews affiliate with a synagogue, and as fewer regularly attend services, those who find little relevance or personal connection in the standard stand-up, sit-down, turn-to-page-18 services offered by many congregations are seeking out alternative services, or ones that incorporate fresh ways to emphasize the High Holy Days themes of repentance and introspection.

The innovations, while a break from recent tradition, are in the spirit of the type of individualized prayer that was practiced in Judaism’s biblical days, when Jews expressed the thoughts in their hearts, and in the times the Holy Temples stood in Jerusalem, when people offered their own words of petition and thanks while bringing sacrifices — before the liturgy of prayerbooks became fixed.

“Increasing numbers of people are actually not coming to synagogue to celebrate Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur, but are doing home/familial observances,” offering personal prayers or itemizing developments for which they are thankful, says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

In recent years the level of creativity at High Holy Days services at many congregations has approached the type of hands-on innovations more commonly associated with the Passover seder.

While no statistics are available, anecdotal evidence suggests that many Jews, turned off by what they see as predictable, performance-like uninspiring High Holy Days services, are not showing up anymore.

“The number of people who always go to shul on the High Holy Days — that constituency is shrinking,” says Rabbi Sid Schwarz, senior fellow at Clal and author of “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future” (Jewish Lights, 2013). “That constituency is dying off. There’s no question about it.”

By initiating new practices, rabbis are allowing worshippers to take prayer into their own hands, to make tefillah more contemporary. Congregants find that “it isn’t somebody else’s show — not the rabbi’s not the cantor’s, not the choir’s,” says Rabbi Shira Milgrom of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains.

Some synagogues have even incorporated texting into their High Holy Days services. A New York Times story last year described Rosh HaShanah services of Miami’s Temple Beth Sholom, where twenty-something worshippers at Rosh HaShanah services in the auditorium of the Jewish Museum of Florida were invited to text their “Past mistakes. Shyness. Anger. Fear of failure. Self-pity. Ego. Doubt. Control.” The congregants’ words then flashed on a screen in the front of the sanctuary.

The article was an eye-opener for many members of the Jewish community, especially older ones, who had not realized how new technology has been incorporated into old traditions. “It’s definitely becoming more common,” especially in Reform congregations, says Rabbi Jason Miller, who does a “Jewish Techs” blog for The Jewish Week.

Such “texting and tweeting … gives people a chance to get their voice heard in real time and to participate in an active discussion so the rabbi’s sermon is not an unilateral endeavor,” Rabbi Miller says.

At many congregations, the personalization of the High Holy Days has gone beyond texting. Some congregations’ practices include meditation and yoga, and acting out of the holiday narratives; Amichai Lau-Lavie’s newly launched Lab/Shul, an outgrowth of his Storahtelling initiative, offers no prayer book; words are projected on the walls; spontaneous poetry on the holiday themes is encouraged, as is acting out the message of the Torah readings and various prayers; Yom Kippur includes an interfaith prayer for peace with the participation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy.

Many congregations, as well as the 92nd Street Y, now feature live music and guided imagery — participants are told to imagine specific people or events or traits that are important to them — in their High Holy Days services.

The Schorrs, who split their time between Cleveland and the Upper West Side, had met the jazz services rabbi a few months earlier when he officiated at the marriage of the couple’s daughter. They liked his eclectic, open-minded style; then they heard that he would be leading untraditional Rosh HaShanah services.

Jamie Schorr, who had grown up in “a more traditional synagogue,” a Reform congregation whose religious services “did nothing for me,” didn’t know what to expect when he and his wife walked into Small’s. “It grabbed us from the moment it started,” he says of Rabbi Blane’s service. “You weren’t bored.” The abbreviated service, “180 degrees” from the type Schorr had attended as a member for decades, lasted two hours. Music throughout. People clapping along. At the end, applause.

“The service is not for everybody,” says Rabbi Blane, who for two decades served in the pulpits of “traditional” Reform and Conservative congregations, mostly in New Jersey. A onetime Off-Broadway actor and singer, he took private lessons to train for the cantorate and was ordained by the nondenominational Rabbinical Seminary International here.

Dissatisfied in the mainstream synagogue world, Rabbi Blane decided to establish his own “Jewish Universalism” congregation. His High Holy Days services grew out of the weekly ones he conducts for Sim Shalom, his online congregation, which is supported by voluntary donations.

Many Jews he met, the rabbi says, felt out of place in the Jewish houses of worship they used to attend.

Rabbi Blane’s 2012 High Holy Days services, promoted primarily online through Google ads, Facebook and his congregation’s website, attracted worshippers from “all over the metropolitan area, filling the jazz club’s five dozen seats.” All elements of the service — the music that combined klezmer and some well-known Jewish melodies, the abbreviated nature of the prayers that were read from handout sheets of paper, the explanations offered about many prayers — were integral to its success, Rabbi Blane says. “I make no assumptions that people knew something.”

At Congregation Om Shalom, a new synagogue on Staten Island, services bring in aspects of Buddhism and Hinduism. Om Shalom will use “the Shema as a mantra for chanting,” says Rabbi Samuel Samtosha, the synagogue’s spiritual leader.

At the MetroSynagogueNY, in Midtown — formerly the Metropolitan Synagogue of New York — there will be an open mike on Rosh HaShanah afternoon where participants can discuss the spiritual matters on their minds.

The New York Insight Meditation Center, a Buddhist institution in mid-Manhattan, has sponsored a “non-traditional Yom Kippur retreat day” for a decade. A disproportionate number of the center’s members are Jewish, says Elaine Retholtz, who leads the Yom Kippur program. And in Newton, Mass., the Mayyim Hayyim community mikveh has designed immersion ceremonies for people who use the facility on Rosh HaShanah and/or Yom Kippur.

This spiritual innovation is most evident in the “liberal,” non-Orthodox community. While some Orthodox congregations offer “explanatory services” that stress the why of holiday liturgy, few stray far beyond the traditional prayers and readings found in the Machzor, the High Holy Days prayer book. In part that’s because of halachic restrictions permitting activities like playing musical instruments or using a microphone or texting on Shabbat and holidays.

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, which holds a regular service for members, also sponsors a free, abbreviated service, emphasizing stories and songs, for unaffiliated members of the community. “It’s a way of experiencing the themes of the holiday,” says the synagogue’s associate rabbi, Ari Hart.

Are liturgical innovations a way into or out of Jewish tradition?

Observers disagree on the answer.

“There is the problem of the ‘slippery slope,’” says Abraham Twerski, a chasidic rabbi, psychiatrist and best-selling author who writes frequently about matters of spirituality. “Once changes are permitted, no one can tell how far they will go.” He suggests having any proposed changes in the services reviewed by halachic [Jewish legal] authorities.

“There is usefulness in trying to be creative — the role of a rabbi is to make their services as meaningful as possible,” says Rabbi Elly Krimsky, program director of the National Jewish Outreach Program. “We live in an entitled society,” he says. “People want an individual spiritual connection. If you want to attract people, you have to use their language.”

The point “is to reach into the souls of the people who are there so they walk away and say these days were really worthwhile,” says Shammai Engelmayer, a congregational rabbi in Cliffside Park, N.J. “The point is you have another year of recreating the world, of changing your life. Who walks away from Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur feeling like that?”

Some congregants of local synagogues say such innovations bring more meaning to their High Holy Days experience.

Georgia Pollak, a longtime member of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, recalls finding something unfamiliar at her pew a few years ago on Rosh HaShanah — a small piece of paper and a small pencil.

Rabbi Milgrom had placed the items at each seat; she invited congregants to write, anonymously, what sins they had committed during the previous year; she would include the congregants’ words in the communal recitation of the Al Chet confessional prayer on Yom Kippur.

Surprised, Pollak wrote something personal. “When I had to write it,” she says, referring to her transgressions, “I had to own it in a different way. It drives home the reality of one’s actions. Were I to change synagogues, I would miss it.” This has become a regular feature of Kol Ami’s Yom Kippur services.

Among actions included in the “public confessional” in past years: “cheating on tests to do well because of the competitiveness to get into college … hypocrisy — being an atheist and participating in this service … ignoring Darfur … not dedicating myself to Jewish study and preparation for my bar mitzvah.”

Hali Weiss, a Manhattan resident who was raised in an Orthodox home but left that community several years ago and now calls herself a “spiritual” Jew, heard a few years ago about the services offered by Romemu, a congregation on the Upper West Side. She went to the Jewish Renewal synagogue’s Shabbat services, felt inspired there and went again for the High Holy Days.

The Romemu services feature live music, as well as a family service that focused on the meaning of “sorry.” Surrounded by hundreds of people, Weiss says she was able to concentrate on her prayers. “The spiritual intensity was moving and profound,” she says. “Nothing is rushed.”

Romemu distributes “spiritual pledge cards” on which people write their goals for the next year — study, prayer, other forms of behavior. The synagogue holds the people to their pledges, says Rabbi David Ingber. “We remind people of what they promised to do.”

Jamie Schorr says the Sim Shalom jazz services he attended with his wife last year were “life-changing.”

Not regular synagogue-goers previously, they now take part in Sim Shalom’s online Shabbat services nearly every week, praying along and making Kiddush.

More than 1,000 people around the world take part regularly in the free weekly Friday evening Shabbat services and weeknight Maariv services on the Internet, Rabbi Blane says.

The High Holy Days services started a process that “brought Judaism into our home,” Jamie Schorr says. “It made me feel part of the community again. We do feel more Jewish.”

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