Miami-Dade County

Texting through Rosh Hashana? South Florida group offers nontraditional holiday services

Synagogues and temples across South Florida will be somber places on Wednesday night as congregants reflect on the past year and prepare to seek forgiveness for the Jewish new year.

But at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach, Jews in their 20s and 30s will herald the start of Rosh Hashana by singing along to the Black Eyed Peas and by playing on their smartphones.

“People who come to this experience will hear traditional prayers as well as new things that are familiar to them from the contemporary world,” said Rebecca Dinar, director of The Tribe, which is organizing the event at the Jewish Museum.

Several hundred young professionals at Wednesday’s Jewish Museum service — Dinar’s group calls it an “experience” to distinguish it from traditional prayer gatherings — will hear the sound of the shofar that they may remember from Rosh Hashana services they attended as children. But they’ll also read quotes from John Lennon and J.D. Salinger and will be encouraged to send text messages throughout the hourlong event.

Holy days

Wednesday evening marks the beginning of Rosh Hashana and the 10-day period known in Judaism as the High Holy Days, which culminate with Yom Kippur, Sept. 13 and 14. The Jewish new year begins on Rosh Hashana, and the High Holy Days are a time of reflection, repentance and atonement for Jewish people.

Considered to be the holiest days of the year, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur often attract to synagogues Jews who may not participate in other religious holidays throughout the year. Dinar said The Tribe, a local organization that has gained national recognition for its innovative programming, wanted to offer something to encourage those people to be a part of their Jewish communities.

“The High Holy Days are a key moment in the Jewish calendar, for sure, a time when may Jews are looking to connect with each other,” she said. “We want to make this holiday as relevant and exciting as possible for a new generation. We hope that experiences like this one will inspire young people to get more involved in all levels of Judaism.”

Rabbi Amy Morrison of Miami Beach’s Temple Beth Sholom and cantor Marcos Ashkenazi of Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center will lead the Tribe’s Rosh Hashana event and another one on Yom Kippur.

Morrison will prompt attendees with questions like, “What regrets do you have about the past year?” and “What are your fears for the coming year?”

The congregants will respond silently, with text messages that they’ll send from their phones to a designated number. Their anonymous messages will then be projected onto a five-foot screen behind Morrison. The messages also will pop up on the rabbi’s iPad, allowing her to respond as necessary.

“The congregants are really the ones who drive the content of the experience,” Dinar said. “Rabbi Morrison may look down at her iPad and say, ‘Wow, a lot of you are feeling afraid to move forward this year. How can we deal with that?’ ”

Last year was The Tribe’s first experiment with a multimedia Rosh Hashana service. The response was so positive, Dinar said, that the group decided to repeat the concept this year and extend it to Yom Kippur. She said she has received calls from Jewish organizations in New Jersey and California, and from a Unitarian church in Miramar, about hosting similar events.

Alex Lewy, who serves as Hallandale Beach’s vice mayor and is running for a seat in the Florida Legislature, attended last year’s Rosh Hashana experience at the Jewish Museum and said he plans to return on Wednesday. (In the spirit of this article, Lewy’s interview was conducted by text message. “Please correct any typos due to autocorrect,” he wrote.)

“As a locally elected official, I am tethered to my iPhone, maybe even too much,” texted Lewy, 32. “It’s traditionally off during services, but things aren’t exactly traditional at The Tribe. And that’s why so many young people were captivated by it.

“Once I accepted that I wasn’t experiencing my grandparents’ version of High Holy Day services, I remembered that the purpose of connecting to G-d was there, regardless of the medium.”

While many Jewish leaders recognize the importance of keeping young Jews engaged in the religion, not everyone believes that texting during services is the best way to do that.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” said Rabbi Judith Siegal of Temple Judea in Coral Gables, who noted that the prayer book her Reform congregation uses is available as an iPad app. “I think it’s a great use of a technology that’s such a part of our lives. But I look at the High Holy Days as a much-needed break from the constant involvement of technology in our lives.

“For many people, it’s a good exercise to turn everything off, to unplug everything,” she said. “The importance of being part of a sacred community is having real face time with people. Most of us probably spend more time facing a screen each day than we do actually facing people. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the time of the year where we should be renewing our human connections with each other.”

Not for everyone

Dinar acknowledged that her group’s Rosh Hashana text experience — like its Hanukkah “ Vodka Latke” event — may not sit well with traditionalists. But she pointed out that The Tribe offers more-conventional networking and volunteering events throughout the year.

And, she said, you never know what someone may discover when they text-message their way through a holiday.

“One woman who attended last year’s experience told us she had stopped going to synagogue because most of her friends weren’t Jewish,” Dinar said. “She gave our event a try, and something really clicked with her. She said, ‘Now I’m ready to go to Israel.’ ”