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ha’ar Communities offers second-day services at the Alpine Pavilion.

Rosh Hashanah is two days long.

That’s something upon which a surprising number of observant Jews agree – Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, diaspora and Israeli alike.

For some of those Jews, the fact that the second-day services are basically a reprise of the first, just with a different Torah reading and haftarah, is not a problem. The sanctity of the holiday, the power of the music, the grandeur of the liturgy, and the intensity of the emotion they evoke make the second day as powerful as the first.

For other Jews, though, that is not the case. Shul attendance often drops on the second day, and attention flags.

What to do?

Two local rabbis have come up with two new approaches.

Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar Communities said that people come to High Holiday services for many reasons. “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are unbelievable gifts to us as human beings and as Jews,” she said. “We are really being invited to take the time to think, to reflect, to celebrate, to connect, and to have the space to bring the range of feelings that come to us this time of year.

“The melodies, the themes, the experience of being with family members – some people do it only once a year,” she said. “Sometimes, for some people, it’s a sanctuary in the larger sense of the term. They come at this time of the year because that’s when they admit to needing the space and the inspiration to do something larger in their lives.”

This year, she expects that pull to be even stronger, she added. This has been a strange and unsettling year, with the war in Gaza, the evil unleashed in the Middle East, and “a summer of not just intense anti-Israelism but that anti-Israelism revealing a very thinly veiled anti-Semitism.”

The desire to come together in community and seek God can draw people to shul, “but for a lot of them a four-hour experience in formal worship can be draining,” she said. So Sha’ar will offer that traditional formal experience on the first day. “People draw comfort from tradition, which anchors them in a world that seems to be swirling out of control.”

But the second day will be different. It will be held outdoors, at the Alpine Boat Basin, and it will engage fully with one of the day’s main themes, the identification of Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world, the day on which the world was created. “We will be out in creation, looking at nature,” she said, overlooking the broad glory of the Hudson River, even though “we’re also looking across the river at the Bronx,” she added.

“Music is a big part of our prayer community, so we have invited additional musicians to join us to expand the range and the depth musically. We are going to draw on the strength of shira b’tzibur – community singing – to access the power of music.” Wordless melodies – nigunim – that bypass the mind to go right to the heart can help people who struggle with the liturgy, and “can allow people to compose the prayers of their hearts in combination with the voices of the family and friends sitting around them.”

Rabbi Lewittes is still putting together the elements of the second-day service; the details are not yet firm. but the outline is. “We will use highlights from the Rosh Hashanah service and we will select pieces that are particularly resonant with the themes and the hallmark musical experiences people identify with the High Holidays,” she said. “We may compose something around the refrain ‘B’Rosh Hashanah tikatevu’ from Unetaneh Tokef,” one of the holiday’s signature prayers.

Instead of a formal Torah reading, “we will have an extended Torah study,” she added. The day’s reading is one of the most challenging of the whole year, and the most open to a wide range of interpretations – it is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, the Torah portion where Abraham takes his son Isaac, walks with him for many days, ties him to an altar, and lifts a knife above him, but is stayed by an angel. “We will be in sync with the rest of the synagogue-going world in that we will discuss the Akedah, but we will do it in a less choreographed way,” Rabbi Lewittes said. There will be facilitated small-group discussion and a general discussion as well.

There also will be a shofar service, as is usual, “but without the full formal framework of the liturgy, we will be able to approach it with more time and more depth and more interaction.

Because the emotion that runs through the High Holidays is deep and complex, the emotions it evokes take many forms. “We hope it will be moving and meditative and thought-provoking; we also want to make sure that there is a deep experience of joy and gratitude and affirmation and celebration,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “So we will we dance.”

In another twist of tradition, Sha’ar will conduct Tashlich services on the afternoon of the second day instead of the first. Tashlich is the time when you metaphorically throw your sins, generally symbolized by pieces of bread, into running water. Sha’ar will have the Hudson at its disposal. And then the entire community will sit down together to lunch.

There are practical details to discuss. The pavilion is open on the sides but covered on top, so rain would not be a problem. There is both parking and (in a sad nod to grim reality) security. And people are asked to dress comfortably.

Quoting the flier Sha’ar has circulated, “Put down your prayerbook and lift up your heart,” Rabbi Lewittes said.

Sha’ar, which is based in Bergen County, is post-denominational; Rabbi Lewittes was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Rabbi Paul Jacobson of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge has come up with another solution to the usual second-day decline in attendance. “This year, we decided that the second day of Rosh Hashanah would be a good time to help promote a younger, more family-friendly feel,” he said. So while there are three services on the first day – the main service, one for small children, and one for families – on the second day the three will combine.

“We’ll have a special tot service at 9:30, and at 10:15 we’ll have the Gesher service” – gesher means bridge – “that will be bridging our traditional service with youth and family-friendly services to encourage greater participation.”

The synagogue’s youth group will lead much of the service; its members will read Torah, and its president will speak. “I’ve asked him to consider the question of what the Jewish community will look like in 2034,” Rabbi Jacobson said.

He feels strongly about the importance of involving children and teenagers. “Don’t just say that we believe in our children as the future of the Jewish community,” he said. “Empower them. Give them the power to lead us, and give them the opportunity to do so.

“The more doors you open, the more people can walk through them,” Rabbi Jacobson said.

If you go to second-day High Holiday services on Friday, September 26, at:
Sha’ar Communities

Where: Alpine Boat Basin

When: 10 a.m.

For information: Call Lisa Kasdan (201)
281-4988, email shaarholidays@gmail.com, or go to www.shaarcommunities.org

You should know: All are welcome but space is limited. You can buy tickets for that one service; they are half-price for newcomers.

Temple Avodat Shalom</b?

Where: 385 Howland Ave., River Edge

When: Tot service, 9:30; Gesher service, 10:15

For information: (201) 489-2463 or
www.avodatshalom.net

You should know: Second-day Rosh Hashanah services at Avodat Shalom are free.

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Temple Avodat Shalom’s youth group visits Washington.