by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky
While we would like to believe that the entire Jewish community attends services at the synagogue for the High Holidays, we know that this is not the case. There are actually a diminishing number of people who attend High Holiday services. While former generations may have felt obligated to attend for a variety of reasons, there are many barriers that now prevent people from attending. Moreover, people just don’t feel addressed by what may be taking place in the synagogue. For some, the cost of High Holiday tickets is high and they don’t see the cost benefit. For others, they simply resent the “pay to pray” model of many North American synagogues. Still others can’t seem to traverse the literacy barrier that is at an all-time high during the High Holidays. Services are long and the liturgy is generally unfamiliar.
Nevertheless, the High Holidays contain the potential within them for effective outreach to those on the periphery of the Jewish community, and those who have been historically disenfranchised. Outside of the organized Jewish community, Jews are still thinking about the being Jewish this time of year. And they may still be seeking an experience for the High Holidays, even if it is not the traditional model that is in place in the synagogue. They may want to express their Jewish identity. They may want to express remorse over the wrong doings of the past year. They may want to find a spiritual experience through a portal-of-entry before they are willing to take a deeper plunge, even if they are never ready to do so.
Even among those who do attend High Holiday services, only a small percentage of those who participate also attend the tashlikh ritual of casting away one’s sins on Rosh Hashanah. This has always seemed to me to be a disconnect, especially given the simple and profound nature of tashlikh. I always thought that tashlikh could actually attract more people than would the traditional model of High Holiday worship because of the former’s brevity and simplicity.
So I want to imagine for a moment what tashlikh could look like if we applied the best practices of our Public Space Judaism SM model to it. In most cases, tashlikh is already taking place in a public venue of some sort – a place where participants are not the only ones to gather, such as a public park. What would the newcomer, the outsider see when experiencing tashlikh for the first time? It would be a simple experience that would provide the participant with a self-contained, full High Holiday experience, even if s/he didn’t do anything else for the holidays. And it just might motivate that person to engage the community deeper.
If developed as a Public Space Judaism event, tashlikh can provide people with the opportunity to “stumble over” the ritual, even if they hadn’t planned on previously attending. (The “stumbling factor,” as I call it, is one of the key criteria for qualifying as a Public Space Judaism program.) It lowers the various barriers to participation that otherwise one might encounter in trying to engage the Jewish community during the High Holidays. There is no cost. One does not have to be a member of the synagogue to participate. It requires no prior Jewish knowledge, no Jewish or liturgical literacy. And Hebrew is not a prerequisite. As a concrete way of expressing a desire to cast off all of our blunders, our mistakes, our misjudgments, the ceremony can be meaningful, cathartic – and very concrete for families with young children.
So that is why we would like to propose to open up the tashlikh ritual and transform it into an outreach event, a portal-of-entry into the Jewish community. At Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we call this approach: Open Tashlikh. For those on the outside, we would encourage people to participate by inviting them to “Cast Away Your Bad Choices with Us.” For staff and volunteers, it doesn’t take a lot of work – since the plans for tashlikh are probably being formulated and the allocation of resources are already made with no additional requirements needed. We are happy to provide additional materials that can assist newcomers – and anyone else – in understanding and finding meaning in tashlikh, so that they newcomers feel welcome and included.
If you want to bring Open Tashlikh to your community, let us know. We will provide you with materials and guidance, resources and training. Contact me at KOlitzky@joi.org.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is Executive Director at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute.