Chai Holidays: Breathe Some Life Into Your Annual Routine

Through hiking, international travel, community service and more, Jews are thinking outside the box and taking Rosh Hashanah observance beyond the synagogue.

(Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.)

Click photo to download. A few lucky congregants get to bring in the new year in the Colorado forest. Credit: Adventure Rabbi.

Not to be confined by the four walls of a synagogue, “Adventure Rabbi” Jamie Korngold takes to the hills for Rosh Hashanah.

Now in its seventh year, Korngold’s 24-hour retreat in Winter Park, Colo., helps participants connect with the holiday through hiking, camping and yoga in the mountains—not your standard prayer service—with the premise that “everyone is literally closer to God at 9,000 feet.”

“Nature is beautiful in its own way and has so many things to teach us about life,” Korngold says. “We can learn about ourselves by observing changes from nature.”

On the High Holy Days, there are many who, regardless of religious practices, seek new and different ways to sweeten the New Year. From nature retreats to international travel to clothing donations and holiday gift baskets, Jews and their community organizations are celebrating with creativity.

****

Growing into (and out of) the holiday

When she taught at the Jewish Community Center in Chicago, Dian Bymel had a difficult time explaining to children how Rosh Hashanah meant that a whole year had gone by.      

Bymel’s solution was a hands-on experience, as she told her students to put on a pair of socks or a sweater they had outgrown. The children would reflect on how they (and the world) had changed in the past year, and donated the clothes to different organizations in need.

“When a child puts on a sweater that was small—they can see how much their arms had grown,” Bymel explains.

“It was a good lesson,” she says. “And spiritually, it made them happy to pass the clothing on to someone who needed it, a nice, satisfying act for all.”

****

Gift baskets: A sweet and memorable gesture

What began as a brunch, and then a pizza party, 25 years ago turned into an annual “institution” for the Jewish youth of Madison, Wis., recalls Francie Saposnik. Looking for a way to get her daughter, Liora, involved in the youth community, Francie invited all the area’s youth groups to her house to prepare food for each other, but afterward to “take care of other people as well” by putting together gift baskets for those who are homebound or in care giving situations.

The basket content has varied over the years, including little containers of honey or honey sticks, honey cake, sugar-free candies for people with diabetes, and sometimes miniature round challahs, Francie says.

The baskets are always decorated and have handmade cards from the kids wishing the recipients sweet times.

Liora, now a mother of teenagers herself, says, “I can remember kids coming, that was really fun; I was so happy that I could bring something to make someone so happy. And, it was really cool to have a chance for all of us to get together.”    

Francie, a social worker for Madison’s Jewish Social Services, says that the recipients love being remembered. “The holiday might have passed them by because they were alone, but the youths talked to them and listened to their stories,” she says.

“I would walk into the rooms and see the baskets and cards proudly displayed, sometimes even saved from previous years, a tangible reminder to them that they were remembered and valued. In fact, the sweetness of honey they delivered couldn't begin to match the sweetness of the feeling we all had and continue to have from doing this.”

****

Click photo to download. Caption: A Hasidic man shaves his head in Uman, Ukraine, where he is joined by thousands of others from all over the world to observe Rosh Hashanah, as was requested by Rabbi Nachman before his death.

Click this photo to download. Caption: Over 18,000 people flock to Uman, Ukraine to shed themselves of their sins by Rabbi Nachman’s grave.Travel: From hotels to rabbinical gravesites

American Jews will travel as far as Uman for an outside-the-box Rosh Hashanah experience. Thousands flock to the central Ukraine city each year to pay homage to the late Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who promised that “Whoever will come to my grave and give a coin to Tzedakah and will say the Ten Psalms, even if he committed the worst sins God forbid, I will take him out of Gehennom (hell).”

More than 18,000 Jews, including Hassidim and those of other backgrounds, made the trip to Uman in a recent year, according to Five Star Travel.

“It’s a very uplifting experience, it's euphoric,” says one participant. “We go, we live very modestly there, because the point is the visit and the religious experience, not the comfort or accommodations.”

Those seeking a more luxurious holiday setting might instead choose the Crowne Plaza Hotel of Stamford, Conn., for an annual Rosh Hashanah retreat put on by Gateways, a Jewish educational organization based in Monsey, NY. From Sept. 28-Oct. 2, more than 700 people—including families, couples, singles—will attend, according to Gateways.

In addition to regular Orthodox services and “an explanatory service for beginners,” Gateways slates speakers on topics including “Scientific Revelations in the Torah,” “Life Choices That Can Make A Difference on Rosh Hashanah,” and “All of Jewish History in One Hour” throughout the four-day event.

To give parents a chance to observe the holiday with other adults, there's also “day camp” for children aged 18 months to 13 years, with appropriate learning, games and activities for all ages.        

“It’s very inspirational, it’s well-run, it's been going on for more than 10 years, and the food is wonderful, too,” says one of the past participants.

****

Starting a ‘conversation with God’

With a rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, coupled with a Natural Resources degree from Cornell University, Jamie Korngold is amply armed to walk the paths between nature and God as the “Adventure Rabbi.”

Korngold’s Rosh Hashanah retreat from Sept. 28-29 uses a prayer book filled with nature writings and photos; the program also includes children's services, oneg and campfire, singing, and late-night conversation.

“The retreat provides a sense of community, it’s easy to meet others, it's easy to talk when walking on a trail, it’s a real chance to evaluate how Judaism makes your life more meaningful,” Korngold says.

“The whole point is to start a conversation with God, at least I’ve started a conversation—and even if everyone won't agree, at least we can talk about it,” she says.

Naomi “Cissy” Shapiro is a freelance journalist writing from Madison, Wisconsin, and Haifa, Israel. She can be reached at cre8vNaomi@gmail.com.