How this Birmingham synagogue reinvented its New Year celebration + takeaways for other religious holidays anywhere – Bham Now

Posted By on September 27, 2020

Author Sharron Mendel Swain - September 24, 2020September 24, 2020A congregant blew the shofar at a safe distance from the crowd. Photo via Audrey Nicole Photography

Mid-March, most religious organizations moved online. In the Jewish world, the big question was What about Rosh Hashanah? Each fall, the Jewish New Year is usually a time for the largest in-person gathering of the year. Temple Beth-El Birmingham got creative with the holiday. Now they have concrete takeaways for other faith communities as they begin to plan their own upcoming holidays. Keep reading for all the details.

Scenes from two days of prayer walks at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Photos via Audrey Nicole Photography

The pandemic presented rabbis everywhere with a challenge. How could they create a meaningful fall holiday experience while keeping people safe?

Most settled for Zoom services this year. Not Rabbi Stephen Slater of Temple Beth-El Birmingham. He was determined to bring people together and to find a way to do it safely.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said he prayed with his feet during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march with Dr. King, John Lewis and others. This inspired Rabbi Slater, who realized that a walk had precedent in many cultures experiences of pilgrimage.

This past weekend, 440 congregants and a dozen guests gathered at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. The prayer walks were masked, socially-distanced and with staggered arrival times.

Congregants walked along a path punctuated by a number of stations. A thoughtfully-crafted program booklet included instructions for individual and group prayers and reflections.

Participants encountered either a new or traditional element at each station, ranging from a Torah reading to a bonsai tree. Organizers chose sensory elements and questions to provoke deeper connections to the spirit of the holiday.

Back in May, Rabbi Slater was moved by the outpouring of grief following George Floyds killing. He went to pray with fellow clergy, honoring the loss the way you would that of a beloved family member.

One rich friendship that grew out of that time was with Pastor Terry Ellison of Montgomery. Ellison pastors eight churches, ministering to 5000 people. Slater also wanted to connect with other clergyacross racial and religious divides.

To help bridge those divides, Slater invited Mayor Randall Woodfin plus dozens of Birmingham-area clergy:

This yearafter a difficult time of upheaval, illness, and death across our nationwill you join us in conversation and prayer? As we begin the new year, we want to start out the right way, together in prayer.

I spent Saturday morning walking with Rabbi Slater, Pastor Ellison and the Reverend Melissa Self Patrick, Director of the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center. We also spent some time with Mayor Woodfin, who came to learn and share with us for part of the morning.

When I asked Pastor Ellison about the impact the morning had on him, he said:

Walking through the service did more than sitting in a sanctuary could have ever done.

The main thing that impacted me was when we read a quote by The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto from Rosh Hashanah 1941: We return to who we are meant to be, but have not yet become.

The idea of being able to repent and go back to what we were originally called to be changed the way I thought about everything.

Reverend Mary Bea Sullivan and her husband Malcolm Marler, Senior Director of Pastoral Care at UAB, also attended.

It was an honor to walk our prayers with the gracious and welcoming Beth-El community. The beloved grounds of the Botanical Gardens were an ideal setting for turning our hearts to Godin repentance, renewal, and reflection. The meditations were thought-provoking and provided a balm I didnt even know I needed.

Rabbi Slater wanted to ensure that a sense of isolation or spiritual alienation wasnt anyones biggest takeaway from the holiday. To him, it was essential to find a way to gather people in person.

I asked Rabbi Slater and Bethany Slater, Temple Beth-Els Director of Programming and Jewish Education, for their takeaways from the experience. Why? To help other religious leaders as they begin to plan their own holiday observances.

Their responses fell into two main categories: practical and spiritual.

My personal experience of the holiday was wonderful. I loved seeing old friends in person after six months apart. Walking in the Gardens with reflection prompts was a rich way to connect with tradition and with the future.

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How this Birmingham synagogue reinvented its New Year celebration + takeaways for other religious holidays anywhere - Bham Now

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