Far From Frum: Opting for Rituals Outside the Shul

Mud Baths, Balloon Rides and Hikes Mark the Holy Days for Nonobservant

By Nathaniel Popper

Published September 26, 2003, issue of September 26, 2003.
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When the shofar blew at Amy Tobin’s Rosh Hashana celebration a few years ago, it was to the beat of techno music, and she was dancing. While she had little desire to attend synagogue, Tobin nonetheless felt a need to mark the new year. So she organized “Honey: DJs spin in 5761,” a party with electronic music, a human beat-box and a shofar-blowing contest where the winner walked away with the ram’s horn.

“I knew it was supposed to be a solemn holiday, and I looked for some more meditative-trance DJs, but then I just decided to get good DJs and make it fun,” said Tobin, a 29-year-old musician. Although the Rosh Hashana event was held in the crumbling auditorium of the San Francisco Jewish Community Center, it was unconnected to any religious service or congregation.

After a childhood of late Septembers spent in Conservative and traditional synagogues, Tobin turned away from religious institutions because of what she described as “the lack of discussion.” The party, though, spoke of the threads that still connected Tobin to her Jewish identity. Since then, she has been awarded a Joshua Venture Grant for her efforts to strengthen the Jewish community through the arts.

While many Jews — even those who avoid services the rest of the year — make it to synagogue for the High Holy Days, a significant population of nonobservant, unaffiliated Jews like Tobin leave the services and fasting to others. The latest National Jewish Population Survey reports that 41% of American Jews don’t fast for Yom Kippur. But many among this 41% have not severed their cultural and spiritual ties to Judaism, and are instead developing their own ways to mark the High Holy Days.

Stanley Ely, a 70-year-old writer in New York, said his mother urged him to go to services on the High Holy Days while he was growing up. “But it hasn’t worked for me,” he said, “I have a spiritual sense that doesn’t overlap into conventional services.”

Now, whenever the weather is nice on the first days of Tishri, Ely heads to Central Park or escapes to Bear Mountain.

Ely and Tobin have not given up on their relationship to Judaism. They are part of what might be called a modern lost tribe. Lost to the rabbis, but also to the statisticians who try to categorize Jews.

Sociologist Steven M. Cohen, co-author of “The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America,” believes these unquantifiable personal rituals are no mere anomaly.

Among the world’s Jewish communities, “America is home to the most ritual innovation of any country in the world,” he said.

In the research for his book, Cohen found that Jews who create their own ceremonies tend to come from affluent, well-educated backgrounds, but they are not limited to these populations.

The general trend can be attributed to the individualism of American culture more than any intrinsic element of American Jewry, according to Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a Reform institution in New York.

“This is a reflection of an American society where individualism and spiritual quests are emphasized,” he said.

In “Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir,” Elizabeth Ehrlich wrote about her family, which never set foot in synagogue but made a special excursion each year to mark Yom Kippur. About one such trip, spent in a row boat on a local lake, she wrote: “We attained a point near the center of the water, under a dome of blue sky. My father tucked up the wooden oars, and we were adrift.”

Natural settings often provide a domain for creating an individualized relationship to Jewish spirituality.

Mark Melnick of Lakeland, Fla., has made his own ritual of renewal and cleansing — literally. Each year, Melnick, 47, takes a solitary trip to a spa in Scottsdale, Ariz., for the new year. He starts with a mud treatment, massage and facial. And then, with his pores cleansed and muscles relaxed, he goes for a long hike on Rosh Hashana. Last year, to cap it off, he took a ride in a hot air balloon to get some additional perspective.

“The one thing I learned from my maternal grandmother was that if God is everywhere, which is what they teach us, then a mountain top is as good a place to pray as any,” Melnick said.

In the woods around her home in Washington, D.C., public-interest lawyer Kim Ockene, a 33-year-old public-interest lawyer, has developed a similar tradition. The hikes she takes to mark the holiday are “my personal way of embracing the new year and connecting to God,” she said.

“I’m not rejecting Judaism in my mind. It just feels a little more natural than going to synagogue,” Ockene said.

Ellenson understands the impulse to head for the woods but cautions that Judaism is about more than just an inner sense of God.

“Nature provides a powerful sanctuary,” he said. On the other hand, there is a communal dimension to religious observance, and here synagogue provides a more appropriate venue than nature.”

For 24-year-old Franny Silverman, who grew up in Pittsburgh attending a Conservative synagogue and day school, it was the mention of spirituality that drove her away from institutional Judaism.

“I don’t need to be in a room with Jews holding books with words written by rabbis thousands of years ago,” she said.

Last year, Silverman, an actress who lives in New York, celebrated Rosh Hashana at a dinner with friends.

“We had everything from fried chicken to squash soup,” she said. “At the end we passed around a plate of apples and honey, and we each said one hope for the future and one disappointment with the past. That was the ritual.”

As with many of the spiritually uncertain, what has drawn Silverman back to the holidays is the sense of Jewish community she remembers from childhood.

The High Holy Days provide the most obvious chance to get back in touch not just with friends and family, but also with one’s Jewish roots.

In “Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir,” Ehrlich wrote of how, for non-synagogue-going Jews, Yom Kippur can be “at least a day of connection, of remembering ancestors and mourning the dead, a day of identifying oneself as a Jew.”

These personalized traditions, though, are not always a one-way street leading away from the synagogue.

Ehrlich later found her way to an Orthodox religious community. When she did, she wrote, “I never forgot that pristine day in the rowboat.”

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