From social justice to ‘slacker service’ groups offer High Holiday alternatives
Beyond synagoguesCelebrating without shul

From social justice to ‘slacker service’ groups offer High Holiday alternatives

Thousands of Jewish Pittsburghers forgo attending traditional synagogues on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Fortunately, there are other options.

Kesher gathers in Frick Park for a reflective Yom Kippur walk. (Photo provided by Keshira haLev Fife)
Kesher gathers in Frick Park for a reflective Yom Kippur walk. (Photo provided by Keshira haLev Fife)

Formal High Holiday services are attended by just 52% of Jewish adults in Pittsburgh, according to the 2017 Jewish Community Study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Yet there remain potentially thousands of others in the region who might want to engage in some type of High Holiday program, even if a traditional service does not resonate.

Several local organizations are responding to this need by offering out-of-the-box Jewish programming on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

For example, the Jewish Community Center’s Center for Loving Kindness is hosting afternoon social justice programs on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. The programs run from 3-4:30 p.m., to accommodate those who might want to attend traditional synagogue services as well.

“We are having social justice forums on the afternoons of the High Holidays because we believe that we can be having sacred conversations on sacred time,” said Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish Life at the JCC and director of the Center for Loving Kindness. He cited the 2017 Jewish Community Study, which showed that “the vast majority of the members of the community understand that morality, ethics and social justice are an essential part of their identities as Jews,” he said.

The Jewish Community Study revealed that almost three-quarters of Pittsburgh’s Jews — 73% — believe that social justice is “very important.”

Symons also noted the relatively low attendance rate at traditional services.

“So, last year, we began to experiment with the idea that if we could do something on the afternoons of the High Holidays that helped people connect with core cultural experiences, and connect that with social justice, we would be doing good by the Jewish community,” he said.

The JCC panel on Rosh Hashanah will feature those whom Symons calls “UPstanders,” and includes Leah Lizarondo of 412 Food Rescue; Tammy Thompson of Circles of Greater Pittsburgh, who will speak on the cycle of intergenerational poverty; and Kristy Trautman from the FISA Foundation and SWPA Says No More, who will address domestic violence and sexual assault.

The program will also include the blowing of the shofar as a “call to action,” Symons said.

Following the Rosh Hashanah panel, participants will be invited to “go to the tables that are set up all around in the JCC of 15 different organizations who are doing the same kind of UPstander work, that they can take inspiration of the shofar, and the words of the speakers and the inspiration of the sacred day and make a difference in our community,” Symons said.

The JCC’s Yom Kippur program, “Forgiveness and Repentance,” will feature Dan Leger, a retired hospice nurse and certified clinical chaplain, and a survivor of the Oct. 27 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, and Ivy Schamis, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and a survivor of the 2018 shooting there. The talk will be moderated by Rev. Tim Smith, CEO of the Center of Life and Pastor of the Keystone Church of Hazelwood.

This will be the second year the JCC has offered social justice-themed High Holiday programming. Last year, about 250 people participated.

“Last year we found that 30 percent of the participants also went to synagogue, but for the remainder, 70 percent, it was the sole thing they did for the High Holidays,” Symons said.

Keshira haLev Fife, the Hebrew Priestess who runs Kesher Pittsburgh — “a non-institutional, post-denominational” communal space underpinned by Jewish values and practices — is pleased to see a variety of alternative High Holiday programs offered in Pittsburgh.

“I think in times past, if people didn’t resonate with what was happening in synagogue, they didn’t do anything,” she said. “And now it’s good that we have alternatives.”

For the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Kesher, which meets at Winchester Thurston School, will offer a Shacharit service followed by a Torah service, but with its own unique spin.

“It follows the arc of traditional liturgy but it’s not straight liturgy,” Fife said.

During the Torah service, although Kesher participants are reading from the same portion “that everybody else is reading around the world,” there will be group aliyot on different themes.

“Anybody in the room that feels called to the Torah because the themes resonate for them and they want to draw near is welcome to come up and gather around the Torah when we read,” she said.

The group breaks for “halftime,” between Shacharit and the Torah reading, to enjoy snacks, give the kids a break, and allow time for the adults to “refuel and schmooze,” Fife said.

Kesher generally attracts about 250 people for Rosh Hashanah, according to Fife, mostly “non-affiliated people who would not be going anywhere otherwise,” she said. “I have a lot of people who are coming who are not engaged with mainstream congregations. Whether it is the interpretation of prayers, whether it is the lack of English, whether it is folks who don’t feel welcome because they are multifaith or multiracial in their family constellations.”

On Yom Kippur, Kesher moves a little further out of the box.

For Kol Nidre, the group engages in a “chanting circle,” co-led by Fife and David Goldstein from Tikkun Chanting.

“The idea is to drop in to Yom Kippur and to gently open our hearts and fill our minds, and allow our bodies, to come to stillness so that we are ready for Yom Kippur,” she explained. “Then for Yom Kippur, we meet in upper Frick Park. We do an abbreviated Shacharit, so moving our bodies and offering gratitude and praise in Hebrew and in English and in songs.”

The prayers are followed by a reflective walk and talk.

“We walk through the upper part of Frick Park and we have various prompt questions around the themes of teshuvah and forgiveness,” she said.

Kesher, she said, crafts its programs with the aim of taking “something that is an ancient practice and to think about how it is relevant to us in this modern time. What does it mean to make teshuvah? When we return, what are we returning to, what are we committed to in our return? How do we learn the practices to help us make teshuvah? What does it mean to enact tzedakah, tefilla and teshuvah, and what does it mean to do that individually and collectively as a community?”

Chabad Young Professionals, a group geared to the “post-college, pre-family” demographic, also is offering alternative Rosh Hashanah programming. “Holy Hour, Happy Hour” is a social/spiritual program scheduled to begin at what may be a convenient time for many — 6 p.m. on the first day of the holiday, Sept. 30 at a private residence.

CYP was launched to “bring authentic Judaism to as many people as we can,” said Rabbi Henoch Rosenfeld, who co-leads the group with his wife, Sarah Rosenfeld.

“In our new age, in our generation, many people don’t relate to Judaism the way they have in the past,” Rosenfeld said. “So, our idea is — as we do at most of our events — to bring a modern twist to a typical Rosh Hashanah service and we are doing it at a venue that is accessible to everybody as well as a time that many who may not have had the opportunity to either attend service or be involved in a Rosh Hashanah activity during the day can then hop on over to us for a social experience as well as a spiritual experience.”

Participants can enjoy holiday inspired cocktails and salads, “as well as some Rosh Hashanah inspiration,” he said.

Rosenfeld will lead what he calls a “slacker service,” which he described as a “truncated version of the Rosh Hashanah service, with a full-fledged shofar blowing.”

“The idea is obviously not to pull anyone away from synagogue,” he stressed. “Anyone who is able to definitely should attend services when they can. Our idea is for those who have already attended, and those who have not had the opportunity to attend, to come together for a social and spiritual experience on Rosh Hashanah, hence the name, ‘Holy Hour, Happy Hour.’” pjc

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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