Widening the High Holiday gates
High HolidaysAlternatives to traditional services abound

Widening the High Holiday gates

“I think there’s a market for Jews and non-Jews and those with blended families to have a sort of ‘greatest hits’ experience.”

Repair the World will welcome people to their Sheridan Avenue Orchard for a pre-Rosh Hashanah celebration. Photo courtesy of Repair the World Pittsburgh
Repair the World will welcome people to their Sheridan Avenue Orchard for a pre-Rosh Hashanah celebration. Photo courtesy of Repair the World Pittsburgh

If you have been seeking ways to observe the High Holidays beyond traditional services, you’re in luck.

This year, familiar faces are trying new experiments, volunteer opportunities are plentiful and the prospects for reflection outdoors or with a song are bountiful.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno spent much of the last year establishing the Center for Interfaith Collaboration, focusing on the wisdom traditions that cross religions and cultures. He wants to extend the High Holiday experience to those without a congregation and to anyone interested in interfaith collaboration.

“Two Sacred Evenings” will take place on Erev Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidre, Sept. 15 and 24 respectively, at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Bisno has created a 90-minute service for each evening.

“I want to provide something for the larger community,” the former senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation noted. “I think there’s a market for Jews and non-Jews and those with blended families to have a sort of ‘greatest hits’ experience.”

He likens “Two Sacred Evenings” to a report in The New York Times about longtime theatergoers opting not to purchase tickets to an entire season of Broadway shows but instead attending only the productions that speak to them.

The rabbi thinks the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s 2017 Community Study points to a future that looks different than today.

There are 47,000 Jewish community members in the region, Bisno noted, but according to the study, only 19% are members of brick-and-mortar congregations. He thinks non-affiliated community members might be looking for an opportunity to experience the Jewish New Year.

“For people who want to have the High Holiday experience, it will be the best music we have in liturgy and a really high-quality sermon,” he said. “It’s for people who want the experience of the High Holidays but simply aren’t able or willing or interested to sit through multiple days of services.”

The services will be both familiar and new to those who attend, Bisno said, explaining that there are no prayer books; instead, there will be a program he has created as a guide.

There is a $100 fee to attend both nights. Those interested in registering can do so at c4ic.org.

Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife said that Kesher Pittsburgh will have several opportunities for people to connect with the High Holidays and one another.

Rosh Hashanah day services will be held outdoors and include a lot of music.

“There’s latitude in the service to consider what tunes we are using, how much are we singing, how are we engaging with the Torah portion,” Fife noted.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, there will be an opportunity to experience tashlich in kayaks on the water and participate in an embodied movement practice focusing on the theme of release and letting go.

Kol Nidre will include an immersive musical experience that includes a chanting segment.

Yom Kippur will begin with a second embodied movement practice before a Shacharit service, followed by mediations and chanting. There will then be an opportunity to join the Center for Loving Kindness’ High Holidays of Hope before a healing Mincha service preceding Neilah and Havdalah.

This is the eighth year of programming at Kesher Pittsburgh, and each year the number of participants grows, she said.

“I think people not only want to mark the holidays in ways that feel significant and important but also ways that are relevant and resonant and connective,” Fife said. “They give folks a sense of being part of something.”

More information on Kesher Pittsburgh’s High Holiday events can be found on its website.

For the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Center for Loving Kindness, the High Holidays start with a mitzvah.

“Jewish wisdom teaches us that on Rosh Hashanah, if you want to impact your fate in the Book of Life, there are three things you can do,” said Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish life at the JCC and founding director of the Center for Loving Kindness. “One is you can pray. You can repent. And the third is, you can do acts of justice.”

Symons said this year the center will focus on that last opportunity with its High Holidays of Hope.

On Saturday, Sept. 16 at the Squirrel Hill JCC, and Sunday, Sept. 17 at the South Hills JCC, volunteers can package care kits for those struggling with housing and food insecurity, and then deliver those packages to community partners. Each kit will also contain words of kindness from the people packing them.

People can also donate gift cards from Giant Eagle, Target or Aldi in any amount, or shop in person or online from the center’s Amazon wish list.

The Center for Loving Kindness is partnering with several other Jewish community organizations as well as the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

“The bottom line,” Symons said, “is we want people to come and do something on Rosh Hashanah that’s going to make a difference in people’s lives.”

On Yom Kippur, a time when folks are focused on reflection and aspirations, Symons said, the center will be joined by Pittsburgh community leader Leon Ford and former Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert for a conversation about moving beyond past offenses and building relationships. Eleven years ago, Ford was shot five times by the Pittsburgh police in a case of mistaken identity. He was paralyzed from the waist down. He and Schubert have since nurtured a relationship.

More information about the High Holidays of Hope can be found at jccpgh.org/event/high-holidays.

For those looking to connect with the fruits associated with the holiday, Repair the World has an opportunity on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 5:30 p.m. at its Sheridan Avenue Orchard and Garden.

“We’re going to harvest apples that are grown on-site and enjoy them with some local honey and cider,” said Repair the World Program Manager Annie Dunn. “Our senior fellow Em [Duhamel] is bringing their shofar to play and will be leading the group in a conversation around the Jewish New Year and rituals.”

Whether it’s an outdoor service, volunteer opportunity or new worship experience, Symons said that he thinks it is important to offer alternative High Holiday programs.

“We know that not everyone goes to synagogue on the High Holidays,” he said. “We also know that for some going to synagogue, they have a yearning for something else as well. The work we do has the possibility of being the primary experience, for some a supplemental experience, to how it is that they celebrate the High Holidays.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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