What if there was a home for Jewish culture and practice in which the motivating question was not, “what do the rules and traditions of Judaism obligate us to do?” But rather, “how can we adapt Jewish wisdom and practice to create experiences that are vibrantly creative, relevant and meaningful to anyone?” That place is The New Shul, founded 17 years ago in New York City by two theatre partners who reasoned that their theatre life was wildly inspirational—so why shouldn’t their Jewish life be the same?
The New Shul experience of the High Holy Days puts that very question into practice. Each aspect of the rituals is considered: music, prayers, readings, Torah, sermons, and then adapted to fit our criteria of vibrancy and relevance.
Every year, a new theme is chosen for the Holy Days to be carried through our programming and events throughout the year. Last year, we studied “Devotion”. That is, how can we use Judaism’s pool of wisdom on devotion to God, though substituting out ‘God’ as the devotional object, and putting in God’s place all the passions, crafts and arts that we already devote our lives to? Throughout the year we studied the etchings of a lesser-known artist named Ben Zion, who etched the myth of the 36 righteous who sustain the world as craftspeople: the watchmaker, the glazier, the baker, the woodchopper, and so on. Another year, our theme was “Mandalas”, and we illuminated our holiday experience through the study of Jung, alchemy and the way mandalic images interact with our lives.
Another aspect of our Holy Days, which the congregation is thoroughly committed to, is our “Assignment”. At the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah services, I offer an “Assignment”, a task connected to our theme, to be accomplished by every member of the congregation during the holy days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During our “Wandering” year, everyone had to spend two hours sauntering in an unfamiliar place, and whenever they arrived at their unknown destination, they were to make a mark of some kind or offer a prayer, be it a photograph, a poem or something else. When studying devotion, congregants were asked to bring in an “object of devotion”, and together we built an altar made up of our devotional objects, surrounding our ark. One man brought a sweater that had crossed the ocean three times during World War II between a husband and wife. Someone brought a pasul (unkosher, worn) Torah scroll that served as inspiration for her artistic endeavours in repurposed materials. Instead of listening to the rabbi speak on Yom Kippur, the congregants each offer reflections on their experience of the “Assignment” in place of a sermon.
Beyond our creative appropriation of rituals and practices, we’re seeking to create deeply still, spiritual moments as well. We accomplish this through the dual modes of music and meditation. I have been a student of classical Arabic music for ten years, studying the oud, violin and nay (flute) with a master Lebanese musician in New York, and with the Syrian and Iraqi communities in Jerusalem. These musical traditions were deeply woven into the mystical traditions of both Judaism and Islam, and as such, they have inherited an appreciation for the diverse states that this music can induce. We allow our music to create spaciousness, to take us inside slowly. A band of accomplished musicians accompanies our services, laying a bed upon which our chanting lies. And we pay honour to breath and to silence; those great forces from which speech and prayer rise.
All of this makes for an experience that is powerful and awakening to a group of downtown New Yorkers who range from religious to secular, faithful to atheist, business folk to artists, painters, chefs, lawyers and yogis. We come away from the days of awe, thoroughly proud of the heritage we have been gifted with, and awakened to the devotions we each pursue in the world.
Rabbi Zach Fredman’s essay appears in the 2016 Autumn edition of Jewish Quarterly. Subscribe to read more dispatches from the issue.