Alternative services seek broader communities
For Jews in Pittsburgh tradition is being bridged in seemingly new ways. Throughout the High Holiday season, many individuals and families are turning to alternative services or experiential opportunities for religious and spiritual fulfilment.
There is a “national trend in Judaism and possibly in other religions toward multiple modalities in religious experience that’s happening both inside and outside of the synagogue,” explained Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, agreed.
“We know that there is a need,” he said. “People are asking for various ways to engage with Jewish culture, wisdom and spirituality in ways that don’t exist at this point.”
To fill those voids, congregations and communities have created opportunities.
For several years, Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill has offered meditation practices concurrent with its High Holiday services. Similarly, yoga services have been available to High Holiday participants at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.
Those offerings are in contrast to what transpired this year at Kesher Pittsburgh, a pop-up congregation, explained Bardack.
While utilizing Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside as a rented base, Kesher Pittsburgh sought to “create a space which is everyone-friendly (and engaging), musical, reflective and connective,” explained Keshira haLev Fife, a Pittsburgh native who returned from Australia with her husband Tim to help lead the service. (Fife, previously known as Sarah Gross Fife, is a former board member of The Jewish Chronicle.)
Through chant and storytelling, Kesher’s service was designed both to reduce and amplify critical moments, explained Rabbi Andrew Hahn, a Pittsburgh native who like Fife returned to the Steel City to lead Kesher’s Rosh Hashanah service.
Specifically, elements were distilled “down to the essence of each prayer and each part of the service,” said Hahn, a spiritual musician who through his art is known as “The Kirtan Rabbi.” Kirtan is a South Asian practice of musical chanting.
During one moment of the two hour service, which also featured Rabbi Dr. Doris Dyen and David Goldstein of Makom HaLev Minyan in Pittsburgh, Hahn led the nearly 200 attendees in a “short kirtan chant.” At another point, Hahn guided congregants, many of whom were children, in the Shema.
Such foci attempt to reach “the core of each moment in the services and find the right few words or chant or meditation or guided meditation” for participants, explained Hahn.
Coupling this characteristic is a commitment to comfort. A pre-service email reminded Kesher Pittsburgh attendees that “there is no dress code — we hope that you’ll wear whatever makes you feel good as we reflect, connect and celebrate; we will be reading from [the] Torah so please bring a tallit if it’s your minhag (custom) to wear one; and there will be plenty of chairs but, if you prefer to sit on the floor, you may want to bring a cushion as the floor is hardwood.”
There is a “kind of pop-up, come as you will, more informal in terms of dress,” nature of Kesher-like services, which often feature “a lot more body movement, a lot more chanting meditation in the services, stories,” explained Hahn, adding, “You don’t need a lot of Hebrew literacy, which is nice. You can pop in and drop in.”
With their lack of Hebrew surfeit and absence of permanent edifice, these services are appealing to a specific clientele.
“There are people who want to do Jewish and tap back into Jewish traditions and for whatever reason they were turned off at an earlier point and for them it’s an obstacle to come into a Jewish synagogue,” explained Hahn. For these reasons, a yoga studio or temporary dwelling, like the rented school, offers a more “neutral space,” he said.
Finally, what beckons many is an attractive demographic makeup.
Kesher, and similar style services tend to be “cross-generational, friendly, easily accessible [with] direct connect — in so far as people want to connect horizontally with a community or vertically with God,” said Hahn.
“We really strive to be transgenerational,” agreed Fife.
Along with being encouraged to bring their favorite animals, books or small toys to the service, children at Kesher were able to use arts and crafts activities during the gathering.
“I think families want to be together and want to be together in creative ways,” noted Symons, who organized a Yom Kippur story walk at the JCC.
Between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. on Yom Kippur morning, families were invited to experience the book “The Hardest Word” — a story about apologizing and recognizing mistakes, by Jacqueline Jules — in what Symons called “a spiritual and creative way.”
With music, prayers and a brief spiritual reflection, the Yom Kippur story walk was a “family centered” activity, he explained. “What’s beautiful about it is that this is not about putting children in seats with books in front of them, we are allowing children and parents to experience the meaning and messages of Yom Kippur in ways that are very natural to kids through play, through storytelling and through crafts.”
The gravitational pull for families is that these activities “meet people where they are, they allow the child to be the child and allow parents to explore and be teachers of their children, and allow parents to engage with each other, to get to know each other and to make friends,” added Symons.
“We in the established Jewish world need to keep our pulse on what people find inspiring so that we can reach Jews where they are and help support what Jews find meaningful [and] help provide opportunities for everyone’s spiritual growth,” explained Bardack, whose Federation responsibilities include maximizing the number of Jewish Pittsburghers engaged in meaningful Jewish learning and experiences.
Much stands to be gained from alternative offerings, echoed Symons. “We believe that these types of creative endeavors are going to help more and more people engage with the Jewish community, and that’s our goal.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.