Sandi Horwitz, a decades-long member of Toronto’s Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, says the first time she attended a Rosh Hashanah service at Oraynu’s forerunner, the Secular Jewish Association (SJA), was a “revelation.”
Her use of the term was somewhat ironic: she didn’t mean it in a religious sense, but was referring to the wonderful realization that she could be Jewish in a way that felt comfortable, but didn’t contradict her beliefs.
“I would read prayers in English [at other congregations] and go, ‘I can’t say these words.’ I’m agnostic… I didn’t believe it… But [at SJA], I felt like I’d come home,” said Horwitz, who grew up in what she called a “pseudo-Orthodox” Montreal household.
Oraynu doesn’t hold regular Shabbat services, but has always conducted Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services that are influenced by secular, cultural and humanist values.
Over the past few years, Horwitz explained, these services have developed into fairly robust programs built on poetry, philosophical reflections, readings and music, but no prayer.
“The tone is that we have the power to make change in our own lives, rather than relying on the supernatural,” Horwitz said.
Oraynu is one of several options available in Toronto for Jews who want to celebrate the High Holidays in a meaningful, community-oriented and even spiritual way, but for various reasons don’t want to pray.
The congregation’s new spiritual leader, Rabbi Denise Handlarski, suggested that services such as Oraynu’s could appeal to people who feel dread or obligation at the prospect of sitting in shul, as well as people who don’t believe in God or wish to engage in the holidays’ ethos of joy and self-exploration in a human-centred way.
“I love the way we celebrate, because it’s an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to our values and what we hold dear,” she said.
Oraynu’s services, to be held at the Avenue Banquet Hall in Vaughan, are innovative, but rooted in tradition and holiday themes such as repentance.
Congregation members have created service materials in English culled from writings and poetry mostly (but not exclusively) by Jewish sources such as Maimonides and American Jewish poet Judy Chicago.
Yizkor is marked by the recitation of names of attendees’ deceased loved ones, accompanied by live instrumental music, while the Yom Kippur daytime service is focused on storytelling about “ordinary Jewish people who’ve done extraordinary things,” Horwitz said
Rabbi Handlarski noted that this way of marking Yom Kippur could be appropriate for Jews who want to focus on self-improvement, charity and social justice without having a “guilt-based experience” that’s heavy on sin references.
“Even the most religious Jew will tell you [Yom Kippur] is very much about asking others for forgiveness… I think the idea of atoning is about creating a more just world where people treat each other fairly,” she said.
Another secular option is the Winchevsky Community’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur celebrations.
The progressive organization, which is part of the United Jewish People’s Order, is holding a Rosh Hashanah service on the first day of the holiday and a Kol Nidrei service on Yom Kippur – both feature community-created materials that interweave poetry, readings and Hebrew and Yiddish music.
Focus is placed on new beginnings, reflection and commitment to improving the world, “with no mention of God,” said executive director Maxine Hermolin.
Unlike Oraynu, which she noted “has a rabbinic figurehead,” the Winchevsky Community is completely member-driven.
The grassroots, downtown Jewish community Makom isn’t a secular organization, but its Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, held at Hart House at the University of Toronto, are alternative insofar as they incorporate what Makom’s rabbi, Aaron Levy, calls “some non-traditional modes of spiritual connection” into traditional prayers.
These include guided meditation and movement meditation, which Rabbi Levy said “can help make the verbal part of the service that comes after much more mindful,” and makes services generally more accessible.
Makom also has a non-prayer option: a standalone meditation session conducted on Yom Kippur.
Beth Tzedec Congregation will also offer an alternative to prayers with programs led by congregant Rachel Rosenbluth on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
These will include meditation, Torah learning, poetry and contemplative activities to “tap into the deep, spiritual essence of the holidays,” Rosenbluth said.
While spending the High Holidays praying is off-putting for some, this doesn’t preclude a desire for a spiritual, community-driven experience.
As Rabbi Handlarski put it: “It’s harder to achieve spiritual satisfaction and fulfillment if a person is saying words they don’t believe… People come to us looking to connect with what I think is at the heart of the Jewish High Holiday experience: the accounting of the soul, thinking about who we want to be, about our world and its preciousness and how we can do better.”