Welcome to the Lab

How radical ritual empowers a new spiritual community 

In Short

In Venice, California, Open Temple’s High Holiday Ritual Lab invites all comers to approach the High Holiday season through pathways that manage to simultaneously be deeply-rooted in Judaism and enchantingly unconventional.

The following article is presented in partnership with the Clergy Leadership Incubator program (CLI). CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis and rabbinic entrepreneurs in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and is fiscally sponsored by Adamah: People, Planet, Purpose (formerly, Hazon). Past columns can be found at: http://www.cliforum.org/blog/.

Many of the people entering into Jewish life at Open Temple come to Jewish practice like a high schooler merging onto the freeway for the first time; ritual “on-ramps” provide pathways to manage the anxiety, resistance and overwhelming feelings of entering into a Jewish spiritual practice during the High Holidays. As someone who returned to Judaism in my 20s, without any awareness of Jewish ritual practice or education growing up, I envisioned the Open Temple, founded in 2013 in Venice, Calif., as a spiritual playground, a place where seekers from the periphery could wander in along with their Ph. D.s, J.D.s and M.D.s and not feel at odds or shamed because their Jewish literacy didn’t match their Ivy League pedigree. Open Temple’s radically inclusive High Holiday Ritual Lab exemplifies how we accomplish this, and offers a template for other communities seeking to create a compelling and enchanting on-ramp for the High Holidays. 

Embodied Ritual

For most Jews, the High Holidays begin at sundown on Rosh Hashanah, or possibly with Selichot services that begin anywhere from several days to a month earlier, depending on your tradition. At Open Temple, our observance begins with the traditional call to fast on the 17th of Tammuz, a good two to three months before Rosh Hashanah. 

Our beachside community is invited into the annual sunrise-to-sunset fast that recalls the moment that Moses breaks the tablets upon which, according to tradition, the Ten Commandments were written by God. Moses’ anger is triggered as he descends Mt. Sinai with the tablets and sees the children of Israel engaging in idolatry with the Golden Calf. We frame the fast day as an invitation to Jewish practice in the midst of summer frivolity. It also sets the stage for Tisha B’Av, three weeks later, when we announce the theme of that year’s High Holiday Ritual Lab.Like any journey, we need guideposts to show the way. Open Temple chooses a different theme for our High Holiday Ritual Lab each year, with vivid images symbolic of the road ahead. Themes of past years included Breathe (during COVID); Red meet Blue (addressing our country’s political unrest); Play (a prerequisite for cultivating a spiritual practice); A Space Odyssey (seeing the High Holidays as a telescope into the soul); and Grow (when the year coincided with the conclusion of a sh’mitah cycle). 

If the practices and liturgy of the High Holidays are meant to reorient us to a life of repentance, prayer and good deeds, we need to name the spiritual malady for which the season has been prescribed. Our Tisha B’Av commemoration, “Broken,” captures that spiritual malady. Open Temple transforms its facility into a space of mourning resembling a shiva house as our community is invited into a reflection of what is broken in our lives, or lost, like the Temple in Jerusalem. 

Radical Amazement

The High Holidays are a symphony, and the movements transition from one to the next in a dynamic sweep. From the ashes of destruction, we move to the exaltation of our love and yichud (Oneness). It’s as if the calendar year teases us with dramatic swings from one emotion to the next, as just six days following Tisha B’Av, we welcome Tu B’Av (the 15th of Av).

Our service invites the seeker into a space of what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement.” The evening traditionally had a Sadie Hawkins spin, during which young maidens, dressed in white, went into the fields, seeking their intended beloved. Tu B’Av foreshadows Yom Kippur because the tradition often imagines Israel entering into a covenantal relationship with God on this holy day. 

Open Temple’s “Night of Love” fosters community and enchantment, our band of three dozen kayaks making its way along the Venice canals beneath the moonlit sky. In the past, we have had fire jugglers on a bridge, a band on a barge, and even King Solomon reciting his poetry on a paddle board. The evening is a reminder that every soul journey must be fueled with hope and purpose to one’s personal call. Tu B’Av, in all of its sensual glory, prepares the collective for the weeks ahead of them.

The Call

With our fixed lunar calendar, the Jewish year connects our minds and bodies to the rhythm of the earth. Our agrarian cycle provides the roots for Jewish observances, grounding us in the subtle awakening of birth, life and death. In the ancient world, the first of Elul prepared us with a series of calls back into the field – our work was dawning. The blast of the shofar for 30 days helps to reset our intention from vacations and the relaxation that summer offers to the work that lies ahead for each of us. 

At Open Temple, “The Call” is a sound-bath, timed to the first of Elul. We gather on the beach with singing bowls and gongs, sand and sea. Our meditation connects us, through sound waves and ocean waves, to the waves of spiritual awakening in our brains. We are hard wired to continue delaying, an endless summer always a fantasy. But the fantasy must end, and we must return to the work of the land and of the soul. 

The sound-bath is preceded by a visual labyrinth of middot connected to cheshbon hanefesh, a soul inventory, that will be followed by an actual labyrinth walk during our Yom Kippur urban retreat. The sound-bath invites us into a deep slumber where all of these practices can mix, as the Ma’ariv of Elul begins. We awaken from this practice by the call of the shofar. During our slumber, we have journeyed into Elul.

For the Open Temple community, Elul is filled with shofar blasts around town. As the rabbi, I carry the shofar with me throughout the month – stopping at crosswalks, in the middle of the famed Venice Boardwalk, and even as I stroll down Abbot Kinney Boulevard en route to a lunch meeting – and invite others to awaken their slumbering souls. The idea of Elul must be carried by the community. 

To amplify this message, Open Temple posts “30 Days of Elul” kavanot (intentions) on social media as daily meditations and prompts for a daily deepening. The goal is to awaken the seeker for the journey. Each post is inspired by something I see in real time in our neighborhood, and represents the concept of hirhur t’shuvah, or “awakening to return.” The lens of the camera frames the work of t’shuvah in the world around us, and brief explanations on social media provide jewels of Jewish wisdom as we prepare our souls for turning.Like running a marathon – or, in our part of the world, an immersive happening like Burning Man – our experience of the upcoming event is only as deep as our preparation for it.

Our Selichot service, aka “the shvitz,” embodies this intention. We visit Wi Spa, a local Korean spa, where we chant, meditate, share our intentions for the year, our struggles, and some tears (and kimchi). The evening always ends with a chanting of “Avinu Malkeinu” in a sauna, followed by a shofar blast. The body is open and supple. The soul emptied of impurities. We merge from the on-ramp, accelerating into our High Holiday Ritual Lab.

To follow the next steps in the journey of the High Holiday Ritual Lab, click here.

Rabbi Lori Schneide Shapiro is the founding rabbi of The Open Temple in Venice, Calif. She developed the model as a fellow in Cohort 1 of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), and continued working on it when participating in the Open Dor Project. She and her husband, Dr. Joel Shapiro, live in Venice with their two daughters and Labradoodle.