By Casey Cohen
For many, Rosh Hashanah is synonymous with two things: apples with honey, for a sweet new year, and going to synagogue to observe the high holiday in community. But this past Sunday afternoon, over 1,000 Bay Area Jews packed up lawn chairs and picnics to mark the occasion in a more casual, outdoor setting – on the beach. This sheer number is a reflection of a growing movement in which people are seeking ways to observe their faith in different and nontraditional ways.
The scene at Camp Tawonga’s family-friendly Erev Rosh Hashanah Celebration on San Rafael’s breathtaking McNears Beach was one of jubilation and community, with an uplifting musical service (hand motions included), a community shofar “blast off” and a separate program for kids. “This is truly a multi-generational community celebration where kids and adults alike have the opportunity to be in a beautiful setting in nature, connect with each other and observe the rituals of Rosh Hashanah,” said Jamie Simon, Tawonga’s Incoming Executive Director.
The event is welcome to all and particularly attracts those who might not attend synagogue but who still want to observe Rosh Hashanah with their families.
This tradition to mark the new year outside began with the Jewish community group, Tilden Minyan, in 2008; Deborah Newbrun, an early organizer, brought Camp Tawonga into the fold in 2012, where she served as a director for many years. “We started this outdoor service because we wanted to explore the messages of the Jewish new year together in nature. What began with 15 friends grew to over 1,000 people today, eight years later. I can see we hit a nerve. It turns out many many people seek to pray and connect and sing in nature,” shared Newbrun.
A nerve indeed – 1,147 people signed up to attend on Sunday, even with the competition of the popular Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival that day in Golden Gate Park. Rebecca Meyer, Tawonga’s Camp Director and co-leader of this year’s program, observed, “Clearly, people are yearning to get outside with their families and to tap into their spirituality. This year’s celebration was the largest single Camp Tawonga gathering in our 91-year history.”
As the service concluded, children reunited with their families and enjoyed round challah together, symbolizing the continuing cycle of years and seasons.
Casey Cohen is Communications Director at Camp Tawonga.