Out of the Synagogues and Into the Public Realm:
Rosh Hashana for Everyone
 
(click for photos)

“Tens of people gathered around to hear me blow shofar in the public park,” recounts Mordechai Harel, the Yachad Program Jewish Cultural Facilitator in Hod Hasharon. “Right after I started, I noticed a family on bicycles that stopped still, dismounted and gravitated toward our group. The father covered his head with his palm and signaled to the kids by putting a finger to his lips.  Afterward, he explained to me that he had hated High Holiday prayers so much as a child that he had vowed his own kids would spend Rosh Hashana outdoors, enjoying God’s natural creations. But lately, he admitted, he had been struggling with feelings of sadness, because his children had little connection to their heritage. With tears in his eyes he told me, ‘Perhaps this was God’s hand at work, making sure that we stumbled upon the shofar and alerting us to the power of tradition.'”

Stories like these took place in various forms and locations all over Israel this Rosh Hashana, the result of Yachad’s “Shofar in the Park” initiative, which brings the central symbols and traditions of the Festival out of the intimidating atmosphere of the synagogue and into the welcoming environment of the public realm. By blowing the shofar and providing accompanying programming in hotspots like the beach promenade in Eilat, Park Hayarkon in Tel Aviv or Katzrin’s Museum of Antiquities, our facilitators and their volunteers made Rosh Hashana both accessible and meaningful for approximately 41,500 secular Israelis.

“Wherever they may be”

“The Yachad Program is based on the premise that secular Israelis like the idea of connecting to Judaism but want to do so on terms that are comfortable and significant,” says OTS Chancellor Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. “If for whatever reason they don’t feel comfortable going to a synagogue for Rosh Hashana services, then our Jewish Cultural Facilitators will bring the services to them, wherever they may be.”

For the second year in a row, OTS welcomed the partnership of the Tzohar Rabbinic Organization, whose volunteer shofar-blowers helped enable the project to take place in 265 locations nationwide. In addition to their activities in the parks and public spaces, many of the volunteers also took their shofars to apartment buildings afterward, to offer a taste of the Festival to everyone, also making special visits to the sick, the elderly and the infirm.

“We were warmly welcomed everywhere we went,” remarks Evyatar Gil, the Yachad facilitator in Rishon LeZion. “Grandparents proudly introduced grandchildren to the traditions of Rosh Hashana; parents yanked teens out of bed and brought them to the living rooms; whole families stood together and listened quietly to the plaintive shofar blasts and felt united by something true and unbreakable,” he relates.

Flocking toward the Shofar

“In the parks, we encountered picnicking families who took a temporary respite from the beers and barbecues in order to silently cherish a moment of seriousness, prayer and connection.  We met people, couples and individuals, who flocked toward the sound of the shofar; people from neighboring buildings who came out to their balconies, stood and listened; toddlers in the playgrounds who tried their own hand at blowing; husbands strolling with wives; people walking their dogs; immigrants and native Israelis; academics and high school dropouts; Sephardim and Ashkenazim; affluent and destitute,” relates Amichai Cohen of Acco. “One of the immigrant couples told me that this was their very first time hearing shofar – and they’ve been in Israel for well over a decade! I was simultaneously saddened by how much there is to accomplish and glad because of the difference we are making in the lives of so many.”

Cohen continues, “When I finished blowing the shofar, the entire park erupted in spontaneous singing and dancing. I wish I could have captured the moment on video.”

Although in fact no videos or photographs were taken on Rosh Hashana itself, we are delighted to share a number of pictures from the lead-up to the Festival, as our facilitators reached out to thousands of secular Israelis of all ages through workshops, events, classes and tours all over the country. These photos clearly convey the Yachad story, in which even the most secular Israelis are excited to embrace their heritage when it is presented in a warm and non-coercive setting and characterized by meaning and joy.