With Fewer Young Jews In Synagogue On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbis Take To Public Parks

Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski, co-director of Chabad of South Denver, Colo., blows shofar in the city’s Washington Park. It's a trend that has Jews of all ages, but particularly younger ones who are less drawn to synagogues than previous generations, coming out in droves for the High Holiday mitzvah.

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The following is via Chabad.org:

When Ingrid Reis-Glass was growing up in Chicago in the early 1980s, she occasionally attended synagogue services on Shabbat with her grandparents, immigrants from the Soviet Union who found that services offered the older couple a chance to relive the lost world of their youth, joining in the familiar tunes and schmoozing in Yiddish with fellow retirees.

But by 2012, living in Madison, Wis., it had been decades since she stepped foot into a synagogue. “It just wasn’t part of my life,” says Reis-Glass. Then a friend told her about a young rabbi who was going to blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah in a public park. Having never heard shofar before, Reis-Glass was intrigued.

She came with her husband and son after soccer practice, and listened to the shofar’s ancient call, along with 100 others who showed up for the short holiday program arranged by Rabbi Avremel and Mushkie Matusof, who direct Chabad House of Madison’s YJP (Young Jewish Professionals) division. The shofar-blowing was followed by an apple-and-honey taste test, in which kids got to vote for their favorite apple varieties and different kinds of honey.

“I saw some people I knew and also met new people, which was nice,” she recalls. “It was just a pleasant, spiritual and welcoming atmosphere.”

‘Toughest Demographic’

Reis-Glass is part of what is considered by leaders as the “toughest Jewish demographic,” a growing trend of young Jews who keep the older American Jewish vanguard up at night because of their increased disengagement from organized communal life.

The 2013 Pew Research’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” found that only 24 percent of American Jews between the ages of 18 to 29 belonged to a synagogue—a 50 percent drop from those in the 50- to 64-year-old bracket.

In confronting the sharp drop in synagogue affiliation and attendance by younger Jews, rabbis like Matusof have been doing something rather novel: bringing traditions of the High Holidays to young people where they are. In this case, they’re offering the essence of Rosh Hashanah to a place of outdoor recreation and leisure accessible to all.

The “606” elevated train track turned urban walking trail is now a spot where Rabbi Yosef Moscowitz, who co-directs Chabad of Bucktown-Wicker Park in Chicago, will again blow shofar. In 2016, 100 people gathered to hear him. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“They have done a fabulous job in engaging the community,” affirms Reis-Glass, who has since attended “Shofar in the Park” every year, as well as a number of other Chabad events in Madison. “There is always a creative new twist, and more and more people come every year.”

“Our goal is not to pull anyone out of the synagogue—on the contrary,” emphasizes Matusof, who holds the annual service on Rosh Hashanah afternoon after leading conventional prayer services at Chabad House of Madison. “This is to offer a chance for those who will not and do not get to a synagogue to experience shofar, a fundamental cornerstone of Jewish observance.”

Madison is no outlier, according to the recent Hertog Study of Chabad on Campus, which found that that students were more likely to be part of a synagogue after they left school, if they were active with Chabad while at college or university. In fact, it wasn’t just synagogue; the growth was seen across all 18 measures of Jewish life explored in the study. Some students, from families that affiliate with more liberal Jewish movements, measure a whopping 112 percent increase in Jewish engagement post-college.

“Like every mitzvah, shofar, wherever it is heard, has immense spiritual significance, creating a deep connection with G‑d,” says Matusof. “The value of this mitzvah stands on its own and is all worth it, even if it’s a one-off deed. But for many, this is really just a beginning. It starts with a few minutes in a park, and next year, it’s a few minutes in a synagogue . . . everyone at their own pace.”

Flora and vegetation native to Illinois along the “606” (Photo: Courtesy of The 606.org)

A National Trend

Madison’s “Shofar in the Park” is among more than 100 similar services that have sprung up across the nation and beyond, many of them mirroring the program organized in New York’s Central Park, held since 2011 by Rabbi Yisrael and Chanchy Kugel, co-directors of Chabad’s West Side Center for Jewish Life.

The Manhattan event attracts more than 1,000 people each year and has sparked a movement of bringing the sounding of the shofar—the core of the Rosh Hashanah service—to parks filled with people.

At Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Boathouse, neighborhood residents will gather for a two-in-one ceremony merging shofar blowing with Tashlich—which involves going outdoors to a natural pool of water on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and saying Psalms and other prayers there. There will be an ‘artisanal honey bar’ with a selection of local and wild honeys, along with holiday themed cocktails. “We’re tapping into the farm-to-table and hipster vibe of Brooklyn,” says Rabbi Ahrele Loschak director of Young Jewish Professionals of Brooklyn.

In the nation’s capital, lawmakers and lobbyists, staffers and students join together for a (completely non-partisan) shofar-blowing in Rock Creek Park under the Lauzun’s Legion Bridge with Rabbi Levi Shemtov, of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad). The event has been going on for years and has gained popularity, now Shemtov leads similar gatherings in Dupont Circle, Lafayette Park (across the White House), and Kogan Plaza, among other places.

Across the nation, under the warm sun of downtown L.A., the sounds of Rabbi Moshe Greenwald’s shofar blowing reverberate in the aptly named Echo Park, bringing the sound of the holiday to those who gather especially for the event as well as passersby.

Bringing traditions of the High Holidays to young people where they are—in this case, offering the essence of Rosh Hashanah in a place of outdoor recreation and leisure.

In Chicago, the “606” is an abandoned elevated train track turned trendy urban oasis that runs through the heart of Bucktown, a gentrifying community fueled by an influx of hipsters from the pricier downtown neighborhoods. With bright flora and vegetation native to Illinois, the three-mile park is full of skateboarders, bikers, walkers and runners who relish the opportunity to rise above the traffic-laden city streets.

It’s also where Rabbi Yosef Moscowitz blew shofar for some 100 young Jews from the area in 2016.

“We had planned for 40 people to attend,” says the rabbi, who co-directs Chabad of Bucktown-Wicker Park with his wife, Sara. “We were really gratified when so many more people came. These are people who do not typically go to services in a synagogue but spend time at the 606, the kind of place where they feel at home. They come as they are, leave when they please and absorb what they can on their own terms.”

Hoyt Park in Madison, Wis., where Rabbi Avremel Matusof, co-director of Chabad House of Madison’s YJP (Young Jewish Professionals) division, will blow shofar. (Photo: Yelp)

About 1,000 miles to the west (and nearly a mile closer to the clouds), Denver City Councilman Paul Kashmann says he has become a regular attendee of “Shofar in the Park” in the 155 acres of grounds and lakes that comprise the city’s Washington Park. The ceremony is arranged by Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski, who co-directs Chabad of South Denver with his wife, Chanie.

Kashmann learned about it when Serebryanski had asked him to publicize the event in the newspaper he ran prior to his ascendancy to public office. “It was my first shofar experience,” says Kashmann. “For me, the accessibility, ease and warmth of ceremonies in the park are a very nice complement to more formal synagogue services. You get all manner of folks wandering up—families, neighbors and even curious non-Jews.

“The Chabad mission is to bring in wandering Jews, of which I am probably a classic example,” quips Kashmann, who grew up in Livingston, N.J., and says he rarely attended services as a child. “It seems that people appreciate the opportunity to connect to their heritage during the holidays and with each other. I’ve since told others about it, and I often bring a friend or two along with me. It’s now something I try to do every year.”

Denver’s Washington Park, where Rabbi Serebryanski is headed with shofar in hand. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(Source: Chanad.org)