Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2005:Unorthodox New Year

Unorthodox New Year

Some Celebrate Judaism’s High Holy Days
With Yoga, Hiking, Mountain Retreats
October 7, 2005; Page B1
FALLS VILLAGE, Conn. — To celebrate the Jewish New Year, Nigel Savage gathered here on Monday with nine other men by a small, weedy lake.

For 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 services.

Mr. 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.

“You can’t do that on the Upper West Side!” Mr. Savage, a New York resident, said later.

For 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.

In 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.

Professors 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.

Christian faiths have tried to bolster interest in services with live dancing and slideshows, 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.

Some 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 in English.

Some 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.

Rabbi 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.”

Nature, says Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold, is why she takes her people to the mountains.

On 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.

An 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.

Rabbi 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.

The 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 kin.

Sharon 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.”

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