Casting Away In Order To Welcome In

Screen capture from The Well's FB page
Screen capture from The Well’s FB page

By Rabbis Michael Knopf and Daniel S. Horwitz

Picture this: A crowd of hundreds – comprised of all ages, denominations and backgrounds – gathering at a riverside concert venue to enjoy live music, engage with interactive art, consume apples and honey, learn the traditional shofar calls and then blow them into kazoos, and then, together, participating in the tradition of casting away our perceived shortcomings (traditionally “sins”) by throwing breadcrumbs into the river.

This dream of inclusive community and transformative Jewish ritual was a reality this year in Detroit, Michigan and in Richmond, Virginia.

Roll the clock back to 2015. The Well, an inclusive Jewish community-building, education, and spirituality outreach initiative founded by Daniel in Metro Detroit, decided to pilot a community-wide Rosh Hashanah celebration featuring Tashlikh in the heart of downtown Detroit. Despite limited planning time and a very modest budget, almost 500 people (in a community of only 60,000 Jews) attended. There was tremendous buzz in the Jewish community and beyond as a result of the event, with significant local press coverage (both secular and Jewish).

News quickly spread. Michael, the rabbi of a dynamic and inclusive Conservative congregation in Richmond, Virginia and a former rabbinical school classmate of Daniel’s, brainstormed with Daniel over lunch at the Clergy Leadership Incubator, a rabbinic innovation think tank run by CLAL, about whether he might be able to replicate The Well’s success in his smaller southern community.

Inspired by the conversation, Michael got to work in Richmond developing what he hoped would be a similarly meaningful – and effective – experience. With help from some visionary leaders in his congregation, he reached out to the Richmond Folk Festival, an internationally-recognized celebration of arts and culture that draws thousands each year, to host the Jewish New Year’s event. They were enthusiastic about the opportunity to showcase and support a beautiful Jewish cultural tradition. Partnerships were forged with the local Jewish Federation and other synagogues and Jewish organizations. With a very modest budget, about 300 people of all backgrounds, ages, and stages (in a community of only 12,000 Jews) came out for the spiritual celebration. The event featured the amazing klezmer music of Frank London and friends (plus a few horahs), apple cider and honey sticks, kazoo shofar blowing, and a soulful tashlikh service.

Meanwhile, The Well expanded on its original concept, securing two lead co-presenters, bringing together 11 local Jewish nonprofit organizations as partners, and assembling a host committee of 20 young adults to help plan the event. The result was an event that exceeded expectations, as almost 1,500 people(!) gathered at the Detroit River to enjoy music, create art, eat traditional foods, participate in crafting activities (including lulav-making for Sukkot!), blow the shofar sounds through kazoos (a continuation of its month-long social media challenge leading up to Rosh Hashanah #Reflect4Rosh), and doing Tashlikh together. You can check out the video recap here and see some of the photos in the local newspaper here.

Through these innovative experiments, we learned that Tashlikh is an incredible tool for community-building, for reaching Jews on the margins, and, more broadly, for using Jewish wisdom to help people flourish. It provides an opportunity for creativity, for depth, for fun, and to engage broadly in a way that we often don’t anymore in our segmented lives.

Tashlikh is about as inclusive as a Jewish ritual can be. While the rite itself is strongly rooted in Jewish culture, it is totally accessible to those of other backgrounds and faiths. It is the perfect introduction to Jewish culture for the uninitiated, a meaningful Jewish rite for the practitioner, and appropriate for people of all ages and stages. No matter who you are, where you’re from or whom you love, we all as human beings strive to improve ourselves. Tashlikh is an experiential and inclusive ritual that helps us do just that.

Tashlikh also allows us to acknowledge how essential (and powerful) it is to share our yearning for self-improvement with community. There is power in the communal casting away, because it reminds us that we each struggle with our own imperfections, and that we are all in this together.

In a time marked by a dizzying decline of organized religion in America, religious traditions that possess the power to transform lives, such as Judaism, must sometimes be taken out of their particularistic packagings and institutional settings in order to have people experience their inherited rituals as wise and helpful. Jewish tradition must be brought out into the public square to compete in the open marketplace of ideas. It must demonstrate real spiritual depth and the power to build community. It must meet people where they are. Tashlikh, we have found, is a perfect ritual to help achieve these goals.

As emerging Jewish communal leaders, we want to help as many people as possible grow in their relationships with Jewish community, wisdom, and practice, and, through our experiences in Detroit and Richmond, we have come to realize Tashlikh is an extraordinary tool to do just that. With that in mind, we are hoping our local successes will inspire other communities to give similar public-space, radically inclusive Tashlikh ceremonies a try!

Next year, on the Sunday afternoon between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (September 24th, 2017), we invite you to join us in helping to bring this amazing ritual to your communities, in addition to our own! We’ll share with you everything we’ve learned these past couple of years in easy-to-digest form, and be of help however we can be in helping you execute a community-wide celebration that is joyous, meaningful and inclusive.

Interested? We’d love to hear from you!

Drop us a note at:
dan@meetyouatthewell.org and rabbi.knopf@bethelrichmond.org

Michael Knopf, named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Forward, is the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia. There, he has partnered with a dynamic and innovative community to inspire a renaissance, fusing heritage with contemporary relevance and imagination. Rabbi Knopf, a Rabbis Without Borders and Clergy Leadership Incubator fellow, is published widely and podcasts regularly. He lives in Richmond’s Museum District with his wife, Adira, and two children.

Daniel S. Horwitz, named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis” by The Forward, is the founding director and rabbi of The Well, an inclusive Jewish community building, education and spirituality outreach initiative of the Lori Talsky Zekelman Fund at Temple Israel of Metropolitan Detroit, geared to the needs of young adults and those who haven’t connected with traditional institutions. For more information, visit meetyouatthewell.org