Celebrate Judaism's High Holy Days
With Yoga, Hiking, Mountain Retreats
By SUZANNE SATALINE
of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
October 7, 2005; Page B1
VILLAGE, Conn. -- To celebrate the Jewish New Year, Nigel
Savage gathered here on Monday with nine other men by a small,
the next three days, they and their friends and families created
their own version of the holiday celebration with prayer,
campfire singing, hiking, and yoga classes -- one of a growing
number of alternative celebrations to traditional synagogue
Observing the holidays in the
Savage, who is 44 and was raised an Orthodox Jew, explained
to the group that a mikvah, usually an indoor bath, represents
a cleansing renewal and a preparation for the new year. The
men shared their intentions to grow and improve. Then, one
by one, they flung off their T-shirts and shorts and jumped
into the water's chilly murk.
can't do that on the Upper West Side!" Mr. Savage, a New York
resident, said later.
many Jews, observing the 10-day holy period from Rosh Hashana
to Yom Kippur involves hours of reading and prayer at traditional
religious services in a temple. Many Reform Judaism and other
congregations have added more singing and music.
But Mr. Savage and his friends are part of a
growing number of Jews who say they don't identify with traditional
Jewish denominations and get more spiritually stimulated outside
of temple. Many of them want to revel in their ethnic and
familial roots, but without religious doctrine.
Mr. Savage first joined some friends at the Isabella
Freedman Jewish Retreat Center here in the Berkshire Hills
three years ago. This year, the Rosh Hashana retreat drew
75 people. Elsewhere, other nontraditional alternatives include
a rabbi who leads hikes in the Rocky Mountains, performance
art that cribs from the Torah, a Berkeley, Calif., meditation
center and even yoga teachers guiding participants through
Hindu-inspired spiritual exercises. Some groups have modernized
High Holy Day services with PowerPoint shows.
For some Jews, the activities personalize, recharge
and deepen their faith. "It's not about rejecting the old.
It's claiming what's new," says Mr. Savage, the executive
director of Hazon, a nonprofit group that runs, among other
activities, Shabbat bike rides. In congregations formed 50
or 75 years ago, "the rabbi and the cantor did it for you,"
he says. Now, "that's not the way people want to experience
it. They want to do it themselves."
No one has counted the number of novel High Holy
Day events that have sprung up in recent years. But organizations
that foster and fund new Jewish ideas, such as Reboot, based
in New York, say many major U.S. cities each have two or three
innovative Jewish groups offering holiday events. Lynn Davidman,
a religion sociologist at Brown University who has written
about Jews who reject the synagogue, says innumerable small
groups have alternative services at home, complete with invented
liturgies and holidays.
Hikers in the Berkshire Hills
New York, Amichai Lau-Lavie and his company, Storahtelling,
offer special High Holy Day performances infused with what
his company calls a "radical fusion of storytelling, Torah,
traditional ritual theater and contemporary performance art."
Storahtelling performances might involve Hebrew chanting,
nontraditional English translation, original and ethnic music
and audience participation.
and practitioners say the various holiday interpretations
are an outgrowth of Judaism's renewal movement, with its emphasis
on spirituality and liberal social concerns. America's consumer
culture provides a boost. "We have been taught from birth
to pick and choose. When it comes to religion, we do almost
the same thing," says Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center
for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.
faiths have tried to bolster interest in services with live
dancing and slide shows, just as jazz Mass and testifying
won followers decades ago. A nondenominational church in Illinois
stages skits to explain Christian teachings. With Christians,
Prof. Wuthnow says, it is more common to alter the service
than to do away with it.
of the alternative Jewish groups don't offer any traditional
religious services. Rosh Hashana service at the Isabella Freedman
retreat was shortened, with parts of the traditional liturgy
removed. Rather than recite a prayer, participants were asked
to chant a single word or to meditate on themes explained
Orthodox rabbis say such services don't fulfill requirements
for a sanctioned form of prayer. They bemoan alternative holidays
that don't include traditional services. "I believe if people
understood what Judaism really says or thinks, there wouldn't
be a need for alternatives," says Rabbi Moshe D. Krupka, national
executive director of the Orthodox Union, an educational and
social services organization.
Avi Shafran, a spokesman with Agudath Israel of America, an
Orthodox group, says there is "a tremendous cheapening of
tradition" among American Jews. He says he enthusiastically
embraces inventions that get young people interested in their
Jewish faith, as long as they adhere to Jewish law, because
that is what it means to be Jewish. "A mature Jew has to balance
inspiration with the technical, legal requirements, and those
are ignored at our spiritual peril," the rabbi says. "That's
what maintains Judaism through the ages. It's not just dancing
and singing, but it's grounded in the laws of nature."
says Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold, is why she takes her people
to the mountains.
Rabbi Jamie Korngold
Monday and Tuesday, she led 160 people from a ranch in Ward,
Colo., on a hike overlooking Rocky Mountain National Park,
whipping out her spiral notebook for a reading or a quote
from "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." For those
who needed something more traditional, she offered a service,
including guitar music and a PowerPoint presentation to help
those who couldn't read Hebrew.
avid skier, Rabbi Korngold, who is 39, started off as a mountain
guide and worked for Outward Bound. After meeting many young
Jews who passed up temple for skiing, she wanted a ministry
that used the wilderness. Participants paid $125, plus board,
to join her on a two-day retreat. "I take the experience outdoors
and show it through a Jewish lens," she says.
Korngold insists she isn't watering down Judaism or stripping
it of its deepest meanings. "Our religion was created in the
wilderness. God gave us the Torah on the mountain," she says.
"Unless Judaism is willing to meet them out there, they are
not coming home to Judaism." It worked for Noah Finkelstein,
a 37-year-old physics professor who visited several temples
and said traditional synagogues made him feel he had to fit
into someone else's religion.
leaders of such events know their work can be seen as flaky
and faddish. But they often attract divided Jewish families,
in which spouses can't agree on which kind of synagogue to
join, and families who have rejected the religion but want
Sandalow and Sander Ash of suburban Boston say flat out that
they are atheists, as does their eight-year-old son. Their
daughter, Rachel Sandalow-Ash, 12, attends a conservative
Jewish day school and is still sorting out her beliefs. But
the family loves tradition, so they joined relatives at the
Isabella Freedman retreat, happily clapping when the Torah
was hoisted and carried around. Rachel says she especially
liked the hike and the origami, adding, "I don't feel obligated
to feel Jewish-y every single moment I'm here."