Imagine a scene at your local JCC (Jewish community center) where fantastically costumed people parade about, launching themselves through rings of fire, toting bows and arrows and inviting you into experiences unknown – all in the name of community, Jewish mysticism and an obscure holiday of which most people have never heard.
This is exactly what we did at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California, in 2016. The event, called “Burning Mensch,” was an inspired hybrid of the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nevada and Lag Ba’omer – a little-known springtime Jewish holiday that is celebrated in Israel with giant beach-party bonfires.
We thought it was time to resurrect the holiday and make it relevant for our community partly because, well, it just seemed fun, and partly because we identified a whole gaggle of Jewish Burners (Burning Man participants) in the Bay Area who would gladly take part.
Inventing a new Jewish ritual
While the sun was up, the festivities were family-friendly, but when the sun went down, it became an adults-only party. The community had a great time: they loved having a little taste of Burning Man back home for one night only; they loved coming together with folks they hadn’t seen for nearly nine months since the Playa; and they loved that we invented a new Jewish ritual to accompany a traditional Jewish holiday.
Religious scholar Vanessa Ochs’s book Inventing Jewish Ritual is a wonderful road map for those looking to be creative in this realm. She says, “Judaism is a dynamic, evolving tradition, one continuously sculpted by its loving practitioners. Jews keep Judaism alive through inventing new rituals – moving, fulfilling, and authentically Jewish rituals. More of us, I discovered, are poised to craft and embrace new Jewish rituals than we may realize.”
The challenge is that many American-Jews believe there is a “correct” or “authentic” way to engage in Jewish rituals and if they do it any other way, they’ll feel like it doesn’t count. The reality, however, is that we’ve been innovating rituals from the very beginning. For example, every year, millions of Jews around the world host a Passover seder. However, no two Seders will ever be identical.
Some will lean toward treating the Haggadah like a book that is read from cover to cover, while others will pick and choose which pages they want to read or skip. And still, others will piece together their own Haggadah from a collection of other Haggadot, articles, drawings, quotes, etc. And, yet, others won’t even use a Haggadah at all, choosing a more performance-based method for telling the Exodus story.
We’ve also seen how the Passover seder, which is a potent symbol of freedom and liberation, has come to stand for a declaration of liberation from some other form of oppression over the years. At one time, we called for the release of Soviet Jews around our Seder tables. At other times, we called for women’s liberation.
Later, we used the Seder to call for LGBTQ rights, racial justice, and environmental justice. And still later, I heard of Seders being focused on calling for liberation from the tyranny of gun violence. In 2020, the Seder became a symbol for freedom from our captivity born of COVID lockdowns.
In each of these iterations, we’ve made the Passover seder relevant for modern times. When you combine that with the fact that they are very family-friendly and child-centric, Passover Seders are the epitome of a meaningful, relevant and joyous Jewish holiday. It’s no wonder they are the most celebrated Jewish practice out of all Jewish traditions.
Passover is widely practiced
A 2021 PEW survey found that 62% of American Jews participated in a Passover seder. Compare that to the next most widely practiced tradition, which is fasting for Yom Kippur – done by 46% of Jews. (Only 23 percent of American Jews light Shabbat candles, by the way.)
According to Dan Libenson from Judaism Unbound, we’ve been “borrowing” our traditions from others for a long time. He spoke specifically of the Hanukkah dreidel and pointed me to a source that attributes the dreidel to an old Irish gambling game.
There is a rich tradition in Judaism of reinventing rituals. We ought to be open-minded about what else can be reinvented, including some of our own sacred cows like the bar mitzvah. Many kids today feel that laboring through years of Hebrew school for a coming-of-age ceremony and big party when they turn 13 is worth it; but still many more would rather find a different path to arrive at that same milestone.
Here at the OFJCC, we offer a “Raise the Bar” bar mitzvah program for the children of Israelis who are not interested in a traditional synagogue bar or bat mitzvah experience. Kids who speak Hebrew can go through an immersive program that incorporates cultural experiences, traditional learning, social action projects, and communal gatherings with a culminating ceremony at the end that is not religious.
The bar mitzvah itself is a life-cycle event that’s been iterated over the years. The term was first used in the 14th century as a moment when a young Jewish man was old enough to wear tefillin, but centuries later a ceremony and party was attached to marking the moment. Then, in 1922, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan became the first girl to have a bat mitzvah.
The OFJCC (Oshman Family JCC) hopes to inspire more creative ritual reinvention by launching a new program next year called Jewish UX, which will offer a platform geared toward two audiences: Jewish educators and members of the wider community. In each cohort, participants will learn, create and connect, increasing their knowledge and confidence to shape our Jewish experiences.
The balance between the three will be different, depending on the needs of the audience. For instance, sometimes educators need less learning and more risk-taking, and sometimes community members want to deepen their knowledge about the origins of certain rituals. Ultimately, we are creating laboratory experiences where participants can create new rituals and try them out.
It is not just up to JCCs and other Jewish institutions to be creative with Jewish rituals if we expect the next generation to find meaning, relevance and joy in them. We need to empower all Jews to innovate and experiment on their own.
The writer is president and CEO of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California, a landmark Silicon Valley cultural institution that welcomes 16,000 visitors per week. He is also the author of Why Do Jewish? A Manifesto for 21st Century Jewish Peoplehood.