The Carnegie Museum Café was the setting Sunday night for a New Year’s Eve-style Rosh Hashana event designed for young Jews looking for an alternative way to connect with their heritage.
From 8:30 to 10 p.m., Jews mostly between the ages of 21 and 29 gathered at the Oakland art museum to celebrate the High Holy Days with apple and honey-themed cocktails and appetizers, live music and a multimedia interactive presentation, focusing on the topics of “teshuva,” “tefilla” and “tzedaka.”
The event was sponsored by Temple Sinai and promoted by J’Burgh, an initiative of the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh that provides programming for Jewish graduate students and young professionals.
“The movement [Judaism] is shifting,” said Jackie Braslawsce, director of informal Jewish education at Temple Sinai, who helped organize the event. “A lot of people want Judaism on their own terms. We saw there was a need not being met, and we wanted to meet that need.”
Braslawsce, along with Nicole Mezare, Temple Sinai’s programming director, and Rabbi Ronald B.B. Symons, Temple Sinai’s director of lifelong learning, came up with the idea of the cocktail party/multimedia event as “an alternative way to meet the needs of this segment of the population,” Braslawsce said.
The program was designed to engage those who want to somehow relate Jewishly on the High Holy Days, but who eschew more traditional formats.
“We came to the realization that there are people in the Jewish community who don’t feel at home in a synagogue setting praying,” said Symons. “We wanted a venue to celebrate together and engage in the wisdom of the Jewish people. We asked, ‘how can we create something that could be a fusion between Jewish tradition and 21st century sensibilities?’ ”
Seventy-five people attended the event. Following the cocktail hour, a shofar was blown to “get people’s attention” prior to the multimedia presentation, Symons said.
“It’s a very accessible program, about 40 minutes — just long enough,” Braslawsce said of the learning portion of the event.
Symons used three modern movie clips to illuminate three key holiday themes, he said: “Looking inward, looking upward toward God, and looking out to other people.”
Scenes from “You’ve Got Mail,” “Pay it Forward,” and “Yentl” helped to illustrate how forgiveness, righteous deeds, and spirituality can play roles in people’s lives in the coming year, Symons said.
“I’m confident and hopeful that by showing those three concepts, how it is that people — Jews — can realize the words we say aren’t just for the sanctuary, but are for our lives, all year round,” he said.
Symons added that he hoped an out-of-the-box event like this could help show the possibilities for Judaism in the years to come.
“For us now, as we consider what Jewish life can look like in the 21st century, we need to be open to an assortment of possibilities,” he said. “The event is on sacred time, but at a place they (young Jews) feel comfortable in, and can realize that Judaism can influence their lives in the year to come. I hope this is an invitation to say it doesn’t have to be how it was.”
Rather than detract from traditional synagogue attendance, Symons said the program helped engage Jews who normally do not participate in Jewish events.
“We saw many people we hadn’t seen in a long time, those who are unaffiliated, and those who we didn’t know at all,” Symons said. “It [the event] gave these people an entryway to the Jewish community that wasn’t there before.”
The event was promoted by J’Burgh, which aims to guide its individual constituents to a variety of High Holy Days experiences according to their unique needs, said David Katz, director of J’Burgh.
“A lot of our participants are excited to see an event like this take place,” he said of the Carnegie program. “One of the great things our community has is multiple opportunities for [High Holy Days] services. J’Burgh tries to provide its community with the different options. Our model is, how are we connecting our young adults with synagogues to have experiences similar to the ones they had while growing up.”
To that end, J’Burghers can be seen this holiday season at virtually every congregation in the city, from Bet Tikvah — a congregation for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community — to Orthodox congregations Poale Zedeck and Shaare Torah, Katz said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)