Sitting around with s’mores
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Sitting around with s’mores

Orangeburg Jewish Center lights a bonfire and fires up a guitar for Selichot

On Tu b’Av — it started on the evening of August 15 this year — people gathered around a bonfire in front of Rabbi Scheff’s house on the Orangetown Jewish Center campus as evening drew in. (Rabbi Craig Scheff)
On Tu b’Av — it started on the evening of August 15 this year — people gathered around a bonfire in front of Rabbi Scheff’s house on the Orangetown Jewish Center campus as evening drew in. (Rabbi Craig Scheff)

A summer campfire is one thing.

You probably lit it late at night, because it gets dark so late, and probably it’s still pretty warm out, because it’s summer. You’re with your friends, because who else would be with you at a campfire. You’re probably pretty relaxed, because, again, it’s summer. If you’re a kid, it’s summer vacation; if you’re an adult with kids, it’s their summer vacation; if you’re an adult without kids, well, it’s still summer.

A mid-September campfire — a campfire on the night before the autumnal equinox — is something else.

It’s probably a little bit chillier out, maybe even actively cold. It gets dark earlier, and because the air doesn’t have that summer softness anymore, that softness that takes the edges off shadows, the shapes the fire makes are sharper. You’re more grateful for the warmth of the fire, even if you’re wearing a light jacket. And maybe it’s your imagination, but the fire even smells a little bit different.

It feels more primal, somehow; the difference between being in the firelit circle and being outside it seems more important. The fire itself somehow seems more important, because you start to realize how necessary it is. How much you do not want to be outside it. How drawn you are to it.

Despite yourself, you stare at the fire and you start thinking. Imagining. Yearning.

And so does everyone else around you, because this is the night of Selichot, the hard beginning of the High Holiday season. (There was the whole month of Elul, of course, but that’s far softer.)

On leil Selichot — this year, that’s the evening of September 21 — the Orangetown Jewish Center will begin with a campfire. Its two senior rabbis, Craig Scheff and Paula Mark Drill, described their plans for the evening.

“We are having a good old-fashioned kumsitz,” Rabbi Scheff said. “We will set up a barbecue to make s’mores, and we will sing.” Amichai Margolis, the shul’s music director, will lead the singing. “Amichai will bring his guitar, and he’s chosen songs, in both Hebrew and English, that relate to the season,” Rabbi Drill said. There’s a range of songs. “The Hebrew part will include songs like ‘Lev Tahor’ — pure heart — and ‘Hashivenu.’ The English songs will include ‘Turn Turn Turn,’ ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ and ‘What a Wonderful World.’” Songs of love and yearning, made even more poignant by the darkness into whose reaches their sounds flow.

“The idea is that Selichot is such a powerful, beautiful service,” Rabbi Drill said. “Every year, the first time that I hear the nusach” — the liturgical melodies — “it is so incredible.

“People largely don’t know what Selichot is. It’s not on their radar. It’s not part of their rhythm.” Most people realize that the holidays are looming fairly late in the cycle, the rabbis said. “Right now, we’re in the throes of Elul, but most people, at most, are ordering their brisket.”

So the campfire is a way to draw people close to the flame that is the holidays themselves. “We thought that offering something friendly might draw people,” Rabbi Scheff said. “When you sit around a campfire, you feel held by a community,” Rabbi Drill added. “It takes you back to when you were a kid.”

The campfire will be lit after dark on Saturday night, well after Havdalah marks the end of Shabbat. The goal is to get it going around 9:30 or so. “Sitting around a campfire with music and s’mores is a way to build community,” Rabbi Scheff said. “And everyone is welcome.”

The campfire on Selichot will not be the shul’s first such fire. Last year, Orangetown lit a campfire in the summer, for Tu b’Av, the 15th of Av, the Jewish holiday of love. (Tu b’Av falls six days after Tisha b’Av and turns the earlier holiday’s assumptions on their head as it moves from existential fear and grief into life-enhancingly giggly fun.)

“I found at the time, with that campfire, that the feeling of bringing people back to a place of simplicity, of breathing deeply, really evokes the possibility of a little introspection and perspective. That’s exactly what we are trying to achieve on Selichot.”

But the season does make a difference. This time, it will be about “the symbolism of the fire, the presence of God, the presence of the light, the idea of bringing light out of darkness. Bringing people together will be connecting them to each other — and to God.”

This year, rabbis Scheff and Drill said, it seemed like a good time to try something different to draw people into Selichot. “Very often we have a very serious program on forgiveness and repentance,” Rabbi Drill said. “This is a little bit lighter.”

At 11:30, everyone at the campfire will be welcomed into the shul for Selichot services, which “will go past the strike of midnight,” Rabbi Scheff said. Traditionally, that’s when Selichot happens, when one day slides unnoticeably, under cover of darkness, into the next one.

It’s a time to reflect, and where better to do it than in the dark, surrounded by your friends, watching the fire, at the same time invisible and visible.

The entire community is invited to experience this first Selichot campfire in Orangeburg.


Who: Rabbis Craig Scheff and Paula Mack Drill

What: Welcome the community to the shul’s bonfire at 9:30 p.m., followed by Selichot services at 11:30.

When: The fire starts at around 8:45.

Where: On the campus of the Orangetown Jewish Center, 8 Independence Avenue in Orangeburg.

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