Today the world is created
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Today the world is created

Rabbi Adina Lewittes and Sha’ar Communities to stress climate change at outdoor Rosh Hashanah service

Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar Communities leads second day Rosh Hashanah services last year.
Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Sha’ar Communities leads second day Rosh Hashanah services last year.

How do you keep the second day of Rosh Hashanah services from being a replay of the first day? (Assuming you’re a rabbi, of course, but let’s make that assumption.) How do you keep a liturgy and the music and the emotions that accompany them fresh? How do you immerse your congregants even more deeply in the opportunities and insights of the second day?

Rabbi Adina Lewittes of the Sha’ar Communities sets the second-day services “by the river, where we can gather in the most ancient sanctuary of all, out in nature,” she said. For the fourth year, Sha’ar will gather next to the Hudson in Alpine, not up on the Palisades but down on the shore, “right by the river, in a beautiful, open stone pagoda,” she said. “With the sights and sounds and smells of nature all around you” — trees gloriously changing color; light sparkling on the river; birds circling, cawing, singing, diving, resurfacing; and the smell of the estuary, salt and sea because it’s not too far from the Atlantic at the river’s mouth.

“It is a moving setting to consider the themes of Rosh Hashanah — re-creation, renewal, and the return to the fundamentals of human life,” Rabbi Lewittes said. And on a more practical — but still metaphoric — level, the pagoda is open on the sides but it has a roof, so unless a storm would drive rain in horizontally, weather will not drive the congregation inside.

On that second day — unlike the first, which is more conventional — community members “put down the machzors and focus our music and our teachings on the contemporary world,” Rabbi Lewittes said. “Mostly we sing nigguns, wordless melodies.” Why? Paraphrasing the Lubavitcher rebbe, “because if you sing songs with words, you stay on a more superficial level,” she explained. “But the nigguns’ wordless melodies force you to script them with your deepest feelings and prayers and questions and doubts, and with the wonder that the music stirs inside of you.

“So although some people might think it might be easier because we set aside the traditional pre-scripted liturgy, it’s actually a more challenging experience of prayer for many people.”

Instead of reading the Torah on the second day — as it does on the first day — Sha’ar “uses narrative as the sacred text that we wrestle with,” Rabbi Lewittes said.

She centers the day’s emotional energy around a theme. “Some years, we have used a chasidic story,” she said. “Last year, in an effort to engage with some of the deepest crises that are pulling apart our country, we used the personal narratives of people who were struggling with mental illness, who were survivors of gun violence, who immigrated here illegally, and who dealt with race education.

Congregants listen in a pagoda “right by the river.”

“They came and they spoke and we listened and we lifted up their words with the call of the shofar, as a way to awaken us to the urgency that their stories convey, and the need for us as a community to take those challenges seriously, as part of our spiritual and existential responsibility. I introduced each of our speakers with Jewish teachings and a niggun, and then they spoke, and then we blew the shofar after each speaker, as a call to awaken to their message.

“We frame this in the paradigm of the Torah reading, with Jewish teachings and Jewish wisdom, but we use their personal stories as the text.”

This year, instead of introducing the community to representatives who were touched personally, sometimes devastatingly, with one of a range of social problems, Sha’ar will focus on one overarching issue. “This year, the focus of our creative liturgy and reflections and meditations will be the climate crisis,” Rabbi Lewittes said.

She will home in on the notion of Rosh Hashanah as what frequently is called the birthday of the world. “Hayom harat olam,” she said. That’s a phrase that means “Today the world was conceived, or created” — that somehow the world is being gestated, is everlastingly in the process of being born. “Given today’s transformation and degradation of the environment, it seems reckless and spiritually irresponsible not to explore and wrestle with our responsibility to the planet on the day that we dive deeply into the meaning and purpose of our lives,” Rabbi Lewittes said. If “hayom harat olam” means in some way that “the world is eternally pregnant, or that the world is pregnant with eternity, then we believe in the endless possibilities for renewal that emerge from the world.”

In that case, particularly in that case, it is incumbent upon us to try to help to heal our increasingly vulnerable world, Rabbi Lewittes suggested. “The notion of being accountable to the earth is a very deep and ancient one in our tradition. These are not new ideas. This is not some newfangled contemporary spirituality. This is deep foundational Jewish wisdom, and it is wisdom that we need to access more than ever on this day, when we think about the renewal of the world.”

And everything in the world is connected, she added. “People sometimes are overwhelmed by the numerous issues and challenges that the world, and in particular American society, are facing now, with rampant income inequality, the shocking increase of racism and xenophobia, the controversial issues around immigration, such that people sometimes say that with all the things they have to struggle with right now, is this one really the most urgent?

Participants enjoy the informality of last year’s outdoor second-day Rosh Hashanah services.

“And I want to remind people that the climate crisis is inextricably bound up with all the other crises, because of the populations that suffer the most from the degradation of our environment and the incontrovertible warming of our planet, which is leading to very unstable conditions around the world. The impact of that is felt more by communities of color, by people who are poor, who lack access to adequate health care and to the resources that others are able to deploy to shield themselves from them. And the bulk of the toxins and the pollutants that we put into the atmosphere tend to concentrate around the communities that are vulnerable in all these other ways. So any efforts that we make to stabilize the environment by definition will have a healing effect on those communities and on those conflicts. So many of the refugee crises that we see today are rooted in unstable climates, which lead to unstable economies, which lead to civil unrest and the search for food and security.”

All of these themes are “deeply intertwined in Rosh Hashanah,” she said.

This year’s second-day Rosh Hashanah services will feature Curtis Fisher, who is the National Wildlife Federation’s northeast region’s executive director; Paul Kaufman, who belongs to Temple Emeth in Teaneck and is Greenfaith’s advocacy director, and Tim Guinee, an actor who also is a leader at the Climate Reality Project.

No matter how untraditional the service, there is one part that does not change. After it’s over, there’s a kiddush.

Everyone is welcome at the service, which is not free but is emphatically open to the community. There’s more information on Sha’ar’s website, shaarcommunities.org.

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