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A rockin’ new year
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A rockin’ new year

Services get creative for High Holy Days

Rabbi Ellie Shemtov of Congregation Kol Am reads Torah with two attendees at the synagogue’s annual second day of Rosh HaShanah service in a Freehold park. The service is free and open to the public. Photo courtesy of Congregation Kol Am
Rabbi Ellie Shemtov of Congregation Kol Am reads Torah with two attendees at the synagogue’s annual second day of Rosh HaShanah service in a Freehold park. The service is free and open to the public. Photo courtesy of Congregation Kol Am

Incorporating rock and popular music into a Rosh HaShanah service probably wasn’t anything the rabbinic sages could have envisioned, but congregants at Temple Rodeph Torah certainly can:

The Marlboro Reform synagogue will hold “Rock HaShanah” services along with its traditional service to engage both children and adults. 

However, it is not alone in putting innovative touches on what can be an otherwise a long day for some. Synagogues are including multimedia presentations and discussions about the meaning of prayers, the holidays, and current events. Some shuls will also let non-members attend the second day of Rosh HaShanah services at no cost.

For instance, Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen is offering an alternative service along with its traditional one.

“It came about because some of our knowledgeable and creative congregants wanted to craft a High Holy Day experience that would be engaging to people no matter what their level of observance,” said Rabbi Eric Rosin. 

The traditional structure of the service will be followed, he noted, but there will be opportunities throughout for people to ask questions and discuss prayer, the holiday, and Torah reading to enhance their experience “in a creative way.”

The creative shul lay team is being led by Michele Rosenfield, a Jewish educator who administers its Shabbat Mincha service and is involved with adult education at the Conservative synagogue. It will be offered the first day of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur.

“As rabbi, my only regret is that I cannot be in both places at the same time,” said Rosin who will lead the traditional service. 

Congregation Kol Am will hold its annual second day of Rosh HaShanah outdoor service, which is free and open to the public, at Michael J. Tighe Park in Freehold.

“Anyone who can walk into the park can come,” said congregation president Susan Canter. 

The service, which is held under an overhang and takes place rain or shine, takes a lot of planning from many volunteers, said Canter, but the result has always been well worth it.

“It’s so wonderful to be outdoors, actually quite spiritual,” she noted. “After we all walk to the creek in the park to do tashlich, we then walk back to the area where we had services for a picnic lunch together. We ask people to bring their own food and we provide the dessert and drinks.” 

Children can play in the nearby playground.

Canter said this year’s holiday will be made even more special because the Reform congregation is bringing in guest cantor Nancy Ginsberg, formerly an opera singer in Milan, Italy, to assist Rabbi Ellie Shemtov.

Rabbi Philip Bazeley, assistant rabbi at Anshe Emeth Memoria Temple in New Brunswick, designed a multimedia High Holy Day service four years ago to explore “an innovation that spoke to a new generation while still providing our traditional service.”

“We also wanted something warm and welcoming to congregants and to non-congregants,” he said. “It is open to anybody and there are no tickets required.”

Focusing on spiritual reflection and personal insight, the service’s catch phrase is “Put away your prayer books.”

The Reform synagogue will also offer traditional services for which tickets are required. The multimedia services will be held on erev Rosh HaShanah and the first morning, as well as for Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur morning. 

“It is kind of neat and I always get excited by it,” said Bazeley. Using a large video screen to guide those in attendance, many parts will use a song, video, or some other tool to “convey the feeling of the prayer and get people to think a little about what is happening.”

For example, during the “Mi Chamocha” prayer, Bazeley said he will show a clip of Richie Havens singing “Freedom,” which was made famous during the singer’s appearance at Woodstock, overlaid with images of the Charlottesville rally. 

“I’ve canvassed my colleagues not only here in New Jersey, but across the country and I don’t know anyone else who does a service like this,” he said.

On the first day of the holiday, Rodeph Torah will hold Rock HaShanah and traditional services for the adults in the morning and a Rock HaShanah service for children in the afternoon, all at Marlboro High School. The Rock HaShanah services will feature Jewish musician Jacob Spike Kraus, a guest artist who promises “a full band High Holy Day service.”

Rabbi Donald Weber said, “It’s really more folk than rock with a lot of Jewish music, readings from the Reform machzor. We attempt to teach as we pray. Many of the traditional prayers are there. For example, ‘Avinu Malkenu’ or ‘Unesaneh Tokef’ are recited to modern music.”

And the service has been a big hit. “We are nearing capacity at the high school auditorium,” said Weber. “We are drawing nearly 1,000 people every year.”

Although tickets are required for adult services, the children’s service is open to the entire community and many families attend.

Cantor Joanna Alexander is working with Kraus to “reimagine” the children’s service to reach youngsters. 

Alexander said Kraus “tries to compose music that sounds like the music people listen to and integrate it to get people on their feet and dancing like they might to music on the radio.” They will use one or two secular songs to spotlight themes of the holiday so the kids realize “they are still part of our modern world, not separate from it. We don’t expect a lot of quiet well-behaved children. We expect them to get up and make noise and sing and dance and celebrate the birthday of the world.”

On Yom Kippur, Rodeph Torah will hold its “sacred texting” program where congregants can anonymously text questions about issues within the Jewish community using their phones “to facilitate an open discussion.”

“In past years, we’ve discussed how to dedicate ourselves to teshuvah and make positive changes for the next year,” said Alexander. “Our congregants are not monolithic. We want to make sure we don’t alienate anyone on a holy day.”

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