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Reinventing Rosh Hashanah

For secular Jews, updated rituals can be creative and personal

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Max Levis grew up on a Vermont farm far from any synagogue, so he and his family celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, by walking in the woods and feasting on the traditional honey and apples from their final autumn harvest. One of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah, which began yesterday at sunset, is above all a celebration of renewal, and a more sober, thoughtful counterpart to the giddy proceedings of December 31. The farm itself has been a temple for Levis, his brother, his mother, and his father, a Holocaust survivor from Athens, Greece. Levis will be at the farm today for the holiday, which he describes as a time for “letting go to start again.”

Levis (GRS’16), just beginning BU doctoral studies in sociology, is one of a growing number of Jews who have personalized or reinvented ages-old tradition to give the High Holy Days—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the more somber Day of Atonement—a humanistic, inclusive cast.

“We don’t have a religious community, but we have a very strong family community,” says Levis. Earth Sky Time, the family’s organic farm, hosts many students and adult volunteers, Jews and non-Jews, linked, he says, by “some kind of spiritual identity.” Rosh means “head” and shanah means “year,” but “the word year to me means changing and an interval of newness,” he says. He hopes to be “a therapist and healer in some capacity” after earning a doctorate in sociology and social work and to research the role of creativity in clinical settings. “Rosh Hashanah isn’t just about being new, it’s about a change,” says Levis, who finds the day “deeply celebratory.”

A majority of otherwise nonobservant Jews, even if they don’t go to synagogue all year, habitually attend during the High Holy Days, says Michael Zank, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion and acting director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies. In Germany, where Zank grew up, there was a phrase, drei tage juden (three-day Jews), for Jews who attended synagogue just three times a year, for the High Holy Days. “Even if you’re relatively secular, you still go,” says Zank, a scholar of secular Judaism, a congregant of the Reconstructionist synagogue Hillel B’nai Torah, in West Roxbury, and a contributing editor of the Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy. Reconstructionist Judaism is an American-based Jewish movement predicated on the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983), who believed Judaism should progressively evolve and adapt to the times, and famously said, “The past has a vote, not a veto.”

Apples and Honey, Hillel Rosh Hashanah

The eating of apples and honey is a Rosh Hashanah tradition embraced by Orthodox and secular Jews alike. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

“I’ll probably eat some apples and honey,” says Ameliah Croft (GRS’12), who is working on a doctorate in international relations and religion. As a child, she says she was observant and attended Hebrew school, but now is “juggling Judaism” in her brain. Her connection to Rosh Hashanah these days is more cultural, but it is still far from being just another day for her.

“You don’t have to be religious” to partake of apples and honey, which signify sweetness and hope, says Zank. “You don’t have to believe in God, you don’t need God or the thought of God to feel that once a year you connect with people to think about who you are, what you should be doing differently, and to connect to humanity with expressions of thoughtfulness and a mix of old and new rituals.”

For Rebecca Esterson (GRS’16), a doctoral student in religious and theological studies, some rituals resonate more than others. As a Christian married to a Jewish man, she recalls her first time hearing the sound of the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn blown on Rosh Hashanah to commemorate the New Year, as a moment that took her breath away. “It was so beautiful and spiritual,” says Esterson, who although not a practicing Jew, feels “something spiritual, something religious that has to do with God.”

In neighboring Boston communities, several Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues offer Rosh Hashanah services that are multicultural and supplement the cantor’s traditional chanting with, in the case of congregation Hillel B’nai Torah, “community bonding” and “personal sharing.” For Humanistic Jews, the traditional Rosh Hashanah reckoning characterized by divine judgment has become instead a gentler occasion for “assessment, repair, change, and growth,” as one secular Jewish newsletter puts it. Hillel B’nai Torah’s website says the synagogue, which offers yoga, chanting, and meditation on Yom Kippur, asserts its active engagement of members “in the creative process of bringing new perspectives to tradition and making tradition meaningful to contemporary lives.”

At Brookline’s Temple Ohabei Shalom (“Lovers of Peace”), a congregation with a commitment to welcoming interfaith families as well as members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community, the Jewish LGBT community often leads the way in reshaping holiday rituals.

Zank recalls spending one Rosh Hashanah with a group of mostly Jewish gay women in Jamaica Plain. “Everyone wrote a bad habit of theirs down, put the paper in a bowl and burned it as an expurgation of bad thoughts,” he says. “I’ve participated in other rituals people made up to somehow mark the day. This is a special time. You want to say that you have a sense of belonging, of taking stock and making resolutions. We do that on the Jewish New Year, not on December 31.”

In traditional communities, there’s nothing to decide—there are obligations. But “the moment you declare yourself secular, you have to make choices,” says Zank. “You might say, ‘I like this tradition,’ but if I’m busy, it’s okay” to forego some rituals. And even the most fundamental rituals, such as fasting on Yom Kippur, are modulated by personal choice. “My wife, who is as Jewish as can be, never fasts,” he says. Her choice was influenced by her father, a Holocaust survivor, who would say, “I fasted enough during the war.” Not everyone fasts, and for those who choose not to, says Zank, “nobody raises a fuss.”

For those wishing to attend services on campus, the High Holy Days schedule at Boston University’s Florence & Chafetz Hillel House can be found here.

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Susan Seligson

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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