Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are likely to feel different this year for Jews in Pittsburgh who are reckoning with traditions and liturgy that may well trigger disturbing feelings associated with last October’s massacre at the Tree of Life building.
To help prepare for the upcoming High Holiday season, which begins with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of Sept. 29, three community members organized a program to kick off the month called “Awaken, Reflect, Together, Rosh Chodesh Elul.” Held on Sept. 1 at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, the program was sponsored in collaboration with the 10.27 Healing Partnership, formerly known as the Pittsburgh Resiliency Center.
“We wanted to make sure heading into this High Holiday season of 5780 that people would recognize it will feel differently than other High Holidays have felt, and to bring intentionality and mindfulness, to not allow us to get caught off guard by the emotions that will come,” said Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership.
The program was conceived by Beth Kissileff Perlman, a writer and teacher, along with Sara Stock Mayo, a drama therapist who has trained as a chaplain and who is also the director of music and ruach at Temple Ohav Shalom.
Kissileff’s husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, is the spiritual leader of New Light Congregation, one of the three congregations attacked in the massacre last fall.
The program, inspired by Pittsburgh’s annual community-wide Tikkun Leil Shavuot event, included learning sessions, singing and blowing of the shofar.
“I liked the idea that the whole community could come together to start the season because this was such an important year, and this season is going to be triggering for people, for most people,” said Mayo.
The organizers thought that a communal gathering would be an apt way to begin the month of Elul.
“I feel like addressing people’s emotional and spiritual needs is really important, this year especially,” Mayo said. “You are about to say, ‘Who will live and who will die?’ That’s not easy. There might be people who even avoid going. It’s our job, as people who do any Jewish communal work in any way, to … create safety. We want to create a feeling of being held in the space and of saying, ‘It’s OK to put it out there and to name it. You don’t have to feel isolated, you don’t have to feel alone, you don’t have to feel like it’s not OK to feel this way.’”
Participants were invited to write on displayed posters, sharing their thoughts on teshuva, presence, reflection and kavanah. They were also offered four breakout sessions: a session on the sound of the shofar led by Kissileff; one for children about the art of shofar blowing led by Gabby Kunzman of Community Day School; a session examining tragedy through history, led by Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives; and a session by Deborah Baron on “finding inner well-being and resilience.”
“This was a ripe opportunity,” said Feinstein, who praised the “informal nature of the program,” and the chance to gather as a community in a way that is not “business as usual.”
The program was scheduled to conclude with the blast of the shofar on the steps of the Sixth Presbyterian Church on the corner of Forbes and Murray avenues.
“There has been so much activity centered at that hub, that middle of Squirrel Hill, and it felt like a great public ritualistic way of claiming our community,” Mayo said.
Mayo sees great power in bringing the community together, especially in a public forum, and hopes to continue to do so in the future.
“For me, I see what we are able to do as a community with the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, and it is incredible,” she said. “I feel like especially after the attack, but even beforehand, that there is such power in coming together.”
Opportunities to gather outside of traditional Jewish spaces, such as synagogues, can be a great on-ramp to Jewish spirituality for many, according to Mayo.
“It’s not replacing anything,” she said. “But if you look at the changing landscape of Jewish community, and what that means, there is just so much that synagogues can’t do, or that the Federation can’t do, whether it is tending to people’s emotional life or tending to people’s spiritual life beyond the confines of what’s in the liturgy in a worship service.
“The sky’s the limit in terms of how we can engage Jewishly. We can do it through chant and meditation. We can do it through text study that’s not just a Saturday morning Torah text study. I see what some other people are doing, like having things out in coffee shops or having things for young people. And for me, I’m big into community-wide, cross-generational, cross-denominational, cross-political. It’s just, how do we build bridges within our community and say there are certain places where we can meet that don’t have to be about anything other than showing up, being Jewish and expressing something that we can all get our arms around?”
The out-of-the-box programming could also help expand the definition of who is a community leader, Mayo said.
“I think a lot of times when we look to Jewish communal leaders, we have certain ideas about who gets to be a leader in the community, and I really like that this is coming from within the community, particularly coming from someone who was directly affected by the tragedy, and from women’s voices, which I think is really important,” she explained. “It’s three women, and it’s three women who don’t necessarily represent the face of congregational life or Federation or things that I think a lot of people associate with the big-tent Judaism.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at