While Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are arguably the most celebrated of the Jewish festivals in the Diaspora, ironically, these High Holidays are often devoid of meaning for many Israeli Jews who identify as secular, and who see them as little more than vacation from school or work.
Our Yachad Program Jewish Cultural Facilitators have been working to change this reality, running creative, appealing programming in communal centers and schools across the country, demonstrating to the Israeli people that the festivals – and indeed, Judaism – belong to everyone.
We are thrilled to highlight below one of these programs in particular. “Shofar in the Park,” which was originally initiated in one Yachad community, this year expanded to 26 different locations. The project brings the emotive and significant High Holiday experiences out of the intimidating atmosphere of the synagogue and into the welcoming environment of the public realm – hotspots such as the Bat Yam beach promenade, Park Hayarkon in Tel Aviv or the Museum of Antiquities in Katzrin – enabling thousands of Israelis to mark Rosh Hashana in a meaningful and comfortable manner.
Yachad: There’s Room for Everyone
Many secular Israelis desperately seek a connection to their Jewish heritage, but they aren’t sure where to go to find it — and the last place they want to look is in a synagogue.
“But just because someone doesn’t feel comfortable going to shul doesn’t mean he or she should not be able to participate in the traditions of their history, roots and heritage,” insists Yachad Program Educational Director Yigal Klein. “This is why, out of all our diverse High Holiday programming, the “Shofar in the Park” project really stands out,” he explains.
Renewing Ancient Traditions
The project takes the shofar experience out of the synagogue, and brings it into the public realm: parks, green spaces, public courtyards and, of course, the community centers out of which the facilitators operate year-round. “At Jewish events held in public forums, the atmosphere is engaging and enchanting,” says Yigal. “Most importantly, there is room for everyone – and I mean that in every possible way.”
Since being initiated by Yachad facilitator Racheli Semo in her own community six years ago, more and more Yachad facilitators have been recognizing the power of the “Shofar in the Park” project and adopting it for their respective communities.
Shimshon brought his own shofar to the park in order to sound the blows for those in attendance, but he also had some extra ram’s horns on hand, “so as to encourage them to touch it, to try to blow for themselves, and to really own their heritage,” he explains. He also laid out picnic blankets with apples and honey and other light refreshments, over which participants were invited to partake in group discussion around universal holiday themes for the New Year. Every hour, he repeated the official shofar blowing in fulfillment of the mitzvah for those in attendance – some of whom had come specifically for that purpose, and others who just happened to be in the park playing or picnicking.”I ran ‘Shofar in the Park’ last year for the first time,” relates Shimshon Fingerhut, Yachad facilitator in Central Tel Aviv. “It was very obvious that the program filled a void for so many participants, who really wanted to hear the shofar but had nowhere to go. However, I only truly understood how deeply the experience had resonated when I saw how many people came back this year, thirsty for more,” he says.
“An atmosphere was created which was open and inviting for Jews of all backgrounds, religious and secular,” shared 42-year-old Orit, who participated in “Shofar in the Park” in the city of Hod Hasharon. “Mordechai [Harel, the city’s facilitator] led us in a discussion of themes relating to self-evaluation, goal setting, and renewal. People shared their personal goals as well as thoughts for the future of the Jewish people. It blew my mind to hear how despite all of our differences, we all want so many of the same things.”
Bat Yam resident Ziv Arielli said, “Last year, I was here by chance when ‘Shofar in the Park’ was taking place. I met great people, enjoyed good food, and even got involved in some meaningful discussions. This year, when I realized Rosh Hashana was around the corner, the first thing I wondered was if it would be happening again, and I was so pleased when I saw that it was. It had been the first meaningful holiday service I had attended in 60 years. How could I not come back?”
A Feeling of Ownership
For many of the children who attended, the experience reinforced the pre-Rosh Hashana activities that Yachad facilitators had run in their schools and community center classes prior to the holiday. For most kids, these meetings represented the first time they had heard of a shofar, and not only did they learn about it, but they were given the opportunity to touch it and experiment making new sounds with it. The facilitators also gave them a chance to taste the different foods connected with Rosh Hashana and learn of the symbolism behind them.
“Many of these parents want so much to impart on their children a sense of Jewish identity but feel powerless to do so,” adds Yosi Duvdevani, the Yachad facilitator in Azur. “Often, when they try to expose their children to Jewish content in an effort to raise them feeling connected to their heritage, they find themselves lacking the language and tools, as they themselves are estranged,” he laments.
“These hands-on encounters with Jewish symbols really give the children a feeling of ownership over them and empower them to engage more actively with their Jewish heritage,” asserts Netanya facilitator Gili David. “When they bring a shofar to their lips and blow, or dip an apple in honey with their own hands, they create their own memories of Jewish involvement and personal engagement with Jewish content – something most of them do not receive at home,” she says.
“When Yosi appeared in the park, shofar in hand, my 4-year old son’s face lit up,” said Azur resident Merav Gamliel. “At first I was puzzled, because we hadn’t come for the holiday programming and I didn’t expect my son to show any interest; we were just taking a walk through the park.
“But then my son exclaimed,’Ima, there’s Yosi! He brought his shofar!’ He went on to tell me all about the different ways to blow a shofar and how he had even tried it himself when Yosi had come to visit his class the week before. I was so moved to see my son connect to Rosh Hashana in a way I never could. And as a result, for the first time, so did I.”