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High Holy Day Services: Inclusive Jewish Spirituality in the Botanic Gardens

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
5+ years
Target audience
Community Building

At Judaism Your Way’s free High Holy Day services, we welcome almost 7000 Jews, loved ones, and seekers into sacred connection during a key moment in the Jewish calendar. We recognize that people seek authentic Jewish experiences without judgment. Our services at the Denver Botanic Gardens offer an accessible and inclusive approach.  Judaism Your Way models what a maximally inclusive Judaism looks and feels like.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

B’tselem elokim— We honor the essential dignity, individuality, and potential of every person. We appreciate diversity in backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, and approaches. At Judaism Your Way, we recognize and welcome every person who enters our tent. We explicitly acknowledge that participants are fine the way they are, and we thank them for building our sacred community, just by showing up
Chavruta and Kehilla--We create meaning together, challenging thinking and building on one another’s ideas. We sing traditional and contemporary High Holy Day liturgy together. We approach our engagements as partnerships and seek the inclusion of many voices. We build our High Holy Day services in collaboration with supporters and friends, who challenge us to keep it fresh every year, while maintaining a deep connection to the reservoir of Jewish wisdom from the past.

Simcha: The wise Hasidic master, the Ba'al Shem Tov, and his great-grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, both encouraged people to connect to Jewish spirituality through expressing joy – through singing, dancing, being in nature, and solitude. Our High Holy Days embody this approach: through joyous singing of prayers old and new, by encouraging participants to move their bodies and walk through the Botanic Gardens, and offering opportunities for contemplative silence and meditation, especially on Yom Kippur afternoon.

Kavannah (Intentionality): We put much thought, deliberation, and care into what we say, how we say it, and what we offer to participants so that they can access the wisdom and beauty of Judaism on their own terms. Our original machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook) includes traditional and contemporary liturgy and poetry that speaks to a wide community of seekers. We think about how to maximize inclusion in our prayer spaces, and how diversity in the Jewish community can be represented by who speaks, sings, and offers words of prayer from the bimah (stage).

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

Judaism Your Way (JYW) models how an empowered 21st century Judaism can offer warm inclusion, rich meaning, and sacred purpose in life to Jews and loved ones, to interfaith families, and to anyone who seeks it.
At each service, we begin with an unambiguous welcome that articulates our vision for Judaism to include all those who seek Jewish connection. We use an original machzor (High Holy Day prayer book) that includes Hebrew, spiritually accessible English translations, and transliteration, so that Jews and loved ones from different spiritual traditions can fully participate with joy and meaning.
Our clergy offer a teaching that explores the heart of JYW, what we call the "Torah of Inclusion." Using Jewish and contemporary sources of inspiration, we practice a maximally inclusive, robust, and vital Judaism that welcomes Jews, loved ones, and friends.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

We have offered High Holy Days since 2004, when 14 people attended in a local university common room. Each year our participant base has grown, and over the past decade we have changed venues four times to accommodate our rapid growth. In 2015, we welcomed 6,770 duplicated people to 14 different services over four days. This represented a 21% increase over 2014 and we are anticipating at least 15% growth as we plan for 2016.

Here is just a sampling of feedback from our yearly evaluations:
“I can't think of other spaces in my life where "radical inclusion" (the "Torah of inclusion") is the central goal; it is a healing and powerful and contagious practice.”

“By far the most in tune and spiritually fulfilling Jewish experience I have, truly meaningful and relevant. My kids actually participate and enjoy their time there. Engaging, accessible, lovely.”

“Most welcoming Jewish community I've ever encountered. My non-Jewish wife isn't made to feel as if she must convert to share in this with me. We're accepted for who we are and not told we need to be something different.”

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

1. Hold the main services outside, in a public space. The simple act of praying outside, in nature, enables many people to intuitively expand their hearts in a profound way. Especially on Yom Kippur, many participants linger in the gardens between afternoon services. As one participant shared with us, "the natural aspect of being in a tent, with sun and flowers was very powerful to me. Look at this wonderful natural setting that God has given to us!"
2. Create an original machzor that combines fresh English translations of traditional Hebrew prayers, poems and writings from other faith traditions, and contemporary music. The service leaders are supported by professional musicians. Before we pray the Barchu (our call to connection) we sing "One Voice" by the Wailin' Jennys in three-part harmony because it perfectly captures the feeling and purpose of the Barchu. We also sing English translations set to traditional prayer melodies. For example, we present an English version of Avinu Malkeinu that can be sung to the traditional melody.
3. Offer two-hour services. In doing so, we acknowledge and honor participants' desire to pray in community and balance their busy lives. While some of our participants spend the day in the Gardens with their friends and family, others leave services to return their children to school and resume their work day. We enable participants to make either choice anonymously and without guilt.
4. Lower the barrier to entry. Our services are free and no tickets are issued in advance so people of all economic means and spontaneity can join in. We do not rent the entire Gardens to hold our services, and often passersby will stop by the tent and ask about our event. Some of these people join the service on the spot; others return for a later service.