Holiday Celebrations around our Progressive World
We traversed the globe to check in with Progressive congregations as they celebrated and observed the High Holy Days of 5777. Communities across Asia, Eastern Europe and India came together with prayers in their hearts, shofars bellowing above, fellow Progressive Jews at their sides, and Torah scrolls unraveled around them. Click through for their inspiring reports.
Celebrating Sukkot with Rabbi Leonid Bimbat in Moscow
High Holy Days across Asia by Rabbi Nathan Alfred
Reform Judaism is growing in Asia! That's the resounding verdict at the start of 5777 as more and more groups across the Far East are getting together to celebrate the New Year. Established communities in Asia - in Hong Kong, in Singapore and in Tokyo – each celebrated with their own resident rabbis; while increasingly smaller groups cropped up across South East Asia as more and more Jews take advantage of economic growth and business opportunities in the region.
Blowing shofars in Singapore
In Singapore, the United Hebrew Congregation (UHC) experienced record attendance during Rosh Hashanah as congregants flocked to services led by Rabbi Nathan Alfred and supported by Julie Newman, a cantor in her final year of the cantorial program at Hebrew College in Boston. Some even made the trip from the neighboring countries of Malaysia and Indonesia to participate. Tashlich was done on a local beach according to UHC custom.
On the island of Bali High Holy Day services were held for the first time. Visiting Rabbi Eliot Baskin incorporated a local flavor, combining prayer with yoga and meditation; on Rosh Hashanah, one congregant even turned up with his surfboard! The Yom Kippur prayer of “Kol Nidre” was sung by Serge Davis, previously of the Mouvement Juif Lib?ral de France (MJLF) in Paris, and hosted by local businesswoman, Liat Solomon. In Bali the group is largely comprised of expatriates, yet other services were held across Indonesia by native Jews, many of whom have Dutch Sephardi ancestry and have recently returned to their roots; these were led by local spiritual leader Benny Prakarsa. Their efforts have been supported by the Union for Progressive Judaism (UPJ) and by visits from Tokyo-based Rabbi David Kunin and Adelaide-based Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky these past two summers.
Celebrating Simchat Torah in Papua, New Guinea
In Yangon, Myanmar, Yom Kippur services were led by Marc Alexander, who flew in from New York. His parents, former members of the UHC in Singapore, had heard of the difficulties the community were experiencing in their quest to bring a Reform rabbi to Myanmar and suggested that their son, a lay leader in Manhattan, fly in to lead services. Attendance included the Israeli ambassador to Myanmar and visitors from neighboring Laos, were in attendance at the beautiful Musmeah Yeshuah synagogue, built by Baghdadi traders more than a century ago. The community is led by local businessman, Sammy Samuels, and the Kol Nidre was sung by Sam Glatman, a young British entrepreneur now working in Myanmar.
Celebrating a Bar Mitzvah in Shanghai, China
High holidays at Kehilat Shanghai, China, were led for a second year by Rabbi David Wolfman. On the Shabbat after Yom Kippur, Adi Yaron became bar mitzvah in a ceremony led by Singapore Rabbi Nathan Alfred. The ceremony was held in the newly restored Ohel Moshe Synagogue in the former Shanghai ghetto. Adi was the first Bar Mitzvah to read from Kehilat Shanghai’s Torah, which was donated to the congregation by Associa??o Religiosa Israelita (ARI) in Rio de Janeiro at the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) CONNECTIONS biennial conference in 2015 in Brazil. This Torah has a special link with Shanghai as it spent the war years there before being smuggled halfway across the world.
Elsewhere in China, Kehillat Beijing brought over Rabbi Jack Shlachter to lead services, and in Hong Kong services at the UJC were led by resident Rabbi Stanton Zamek and Cantor Melissa Berman.
Eating in the Sukkah in Bangkok
The Thailand Progressive Jewish Community (TPJC) held services in Bangkok and, with the support of the WUPJ, were able to bring Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon from Kehillat YOZMA in Israel to conduct their services. Recently, Progressive Jews of Phnom Penh, under the leadership of Divon and Channe Lan, have begun assembling on a regular basis to celebrate Shabbat dinners and form a community among Jews living in Cambodia.
It seems that 5777 will see new initiatives across the region, with new groups forming and developing. Next year in Taipei!
For more details, or if you find yourself living in Asia and looking for a community, please email Rabbi Nathan Alfred to connect with our Progressive communities and congregations there.
High Holy Days in the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe
High Holy Days in Belarus kicked off with a TV appearance by Andrey Dorefeev, Chair of Beit Simcha, and Rabbi Grigory Abramovich, during which they spoke about the holidays and blew the shofar. Rabbi Abramovich also penned an article about Sukkot for more than 50,000 readers of the Narodnaya newspaper.
Preschoolers from Ira Abramovich Synagogue Tots Education and Progress
(STEP) program celebrate in the Sukkah of Beit Simcha in Minsk, Belarus
Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Simchat Torah celebrations at Beit Simcha in Minsk were attended by many congregants including diplomats of the Israeli Embassy; first secretary of the Embassy, Anna Keinan, a native of Belarus, who joined services with her family; the Head of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC); and the Deputy Chair of the Union of Belarusian Jewish organizations and Communities. Evgeniy Perlin, a popular Belarusian TV star, was also a guest of honor at Yom Kippur services. Holy Day services were led by ?rtur Raiski and Rabbi Abramovich, together with hearing-impaired members of the Sheket community, Netzer youth and Hillel members.
Rabbi Abramovich visited the Great Synagogue of Grodno to blow the shofar and join the Chabad rabbi there for services. This event was part of a Jewish music concert organized by the Belarusian State Opera and Ballet House that took place in the Great Synagogue of Grodno after Rosh Hashanah. For the first time in its history, Beit Simcha congregants built a Sukkah outside the Sandra Breslauer Beit Simcha Center with the help of conversion school students and children attending the Ira Abramovich Synagogue Tots Educational and Progress (STEP) program. Performing the commandments of blessing and shaking the Lulav in the sukkah was Michael Kemerov, Executive Director of the RUPJ in Belarus, who noted that the last time Belarusian Jews built a sukkah there was in 1936, 80 years ago, when the street which the sukkah faces was renamed, and Soviet authorities began repressions against Jewish tradition and culture.
Rosh Hashanah celebrations at the Mogilev kindergarten with the RUPJ
chair Mila Izakson and Beit Simcha’s Rabbi Grigory Abramovich
For the past five consecutive years, Mila Izakson, Chair of the Mogilev Jewish community “Keshet”, held Rosh Hashanah celebrations in the sports club building which formerly held the synagogue of Mogilev. For the third consecutive year, the “Emuna” community in Vitebsk invited congregants to perform the mitzvah of the Lulav with Rabbi Abramovich and partake in a Sukkot meal together with Dimitry Rudnicky, Chairman of the community. For the second year in a row, Belarus’ oldest Jewish community, “Simha”, under the leadership of a Jewish educator Irina Belskaya opened its doors to Minsk Jewish kindergarteners and to Jews visiting Minsk for the High Holy Days, including Reform Jews from the US, Germany and Australia.
The new Shirat ha-Yam community celebrated Rosh Hashanah in Odessa for the first time. As the Chairman Semen Kazakov joked, "In the year 5777, we seem to have already won the jackpot". A series of autumn festivals united community members of all ages. Services were led by Rabbi Julia Gris and Vladimir Torchinskiy and were accompanied by a Kiddush and an interactive program from Netzer youth.
Shirat ha-Yam in Odessa Reads from their new Sefer Torah for Simchat Torah
The community’s favorite tradition is a Tashlich ceremony at the Black Sea. On the second night of Rosh Hashanah the community hosted a lecture by Dr. Corinne Blackmer, Associate Professor of English and Judaic Studies at Southern Connecticut State University, and her Ukrainian colleague Dr. Vitaly Chernoivanenko from the National Univeristy Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. During the Days of Awe community members participated in classes and discussion groups which focused on the spiritual and religious meanings of the holidays.
Yom Kippur observance by Shirat ha-Yam members was challenged this year by a severe storm warning for all of Odessa –a state of emergency was declared! However, despite the warnings, members of the community gathered for Yom Kippur prayers as a testament of their determination and dedication to the community.
Discussion group for members of Shirat ha-Yam in the sukkah
The first sukkah was built in Shirat ha-Yam this year and decorated by children from the "Ivriya" program along with members of Netzer youth. Community members and guests fulfilled the commandments of the Lulav and Etrog, along with the other Four Species (Arba Minim) and studied the Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet).
The holiday of Simchat Torah offered a new opportunity for Shirat ha-Yam to utilize their new Sefer Torah granted through Project Kesher. According to community tradition, all current and new members of the community were called to read from or bless the Torah. Everyone was welcome to dance Hakafot with the Torah and Rabbi Gris unfolded the Torah scroll for all to touch and see up-close to foster personal, spiritual connections with the Torah on the holiday.
For regular updates from Shirat ha-Yam, including photos and event listings, follow them here on Facebook.
St. Petersburg, Russia:
Sha’arei Shalom enjoyed energetic, spiritual and joyful High Holy Day celebrations with services, discussion groups and events led by Rabbi Elena Rubinstein, head of the congregation.
Rabbi Elena Rubinstein speaking to Sha’arei Shalom in St. Petersburg, Russia
During a ceremony for sounding the Shofar, Rabbi Rubinstein noted, “And the people shouted, and blew with the trumpets; and it was when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down in its…” (Joshua - Chapter 6:20)
“But not only by the sound of the shofar walls had fallen,” Rabbi Rubinstein continued. “The wall fell also because ‘the people shouted with a loud voice.’ This ‘exclamation’ is a human reaction, which makes the walls collapse – the ‘wall’ of our disbelief, of alienation, indifference, selfishness, malevolence, selfishness and the impenetrable wall of separation from the ‘voice of thin silence’ – a voice that has absorbed a cry for help of this imperfect world.”
During the ceremony one child began to cry loudly and his mother was embarrassed by her child’s reaction. “But this is exactly what Hashem demands from us,” Rabbi Rubinstein explained, “[the baby’s] soul cries, but also demands he begin to act – to destroy the ‘wall’ and build bridges."
Students of the St. Petersburg Jewish kindergartens visiting
Sha’arei Shalom on Simchat Torah
For more pictures of Rosh Hashanah services at Sha’arei Shalom, click here.
Yom Kippur in Russia was a working day but, in spite of that, more than one hundred people took part in services conducted by Rabbi Elena Rubinstein and Cantor Baruch Finkelstein and a Beit Midrash program, organized by Alla Mitelman, Community Programs Director.
Challah baking “master class” with Alla Mitelman at
Shaarei Shalom Beit Midrash in St. Petersburg
For the seventh consecutive year, Sukkot began with a unique Seder developed by Rabbi Rubinstein. The program included: the traditional "four plus one glasses" (a fifth cup for the Sha’arei Shalom community), the Sukkot bouquet of the Lulav, Etrog and Four Species, and reading the story of the Exodus from Egypt as a Haggadah for Sukkot, expressing the joy, faith and hope of the holiday’s traditions and tales.
On this festive evening, heads of international Jewish organizations working in St. Petersburg - General Consul of the State of Israel Michael Lotem and his family; former MK and member of the the Jewish Agency for Israel Directors Forum for Russian-speaking elected representatives, Orit Zuarets, and her family; and Elena Eipshits from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) - joined members to rejoice, sang, eat and drink in the sukkah.
Celebrating Sukkot with Sha’arei Shalom in St. Petersburg
Discussions ranged from ‘all about the Etrog’ to relations within the Jewish people and with other nations, to equal rights, human rights and social justice.
Simchat Torah celebrations included prayers, dancing with the Torah scrolls, Torah readings, and songs performed by Community Cantor Baruch Finkelstein.
Le Dor Va Dor, Moscow’s Center for Progressive Judaism, offered various services celebrating Rosh Hashanah. A special educational event was organized for families with children in the framework of the "Sunday family club" project and led by the students of Institute for Modern Judaism. Two large communal services were conducted by Rabbis Alexander Lyskovoy and Leonid Bimbat together with Cantor Dmitry Karpenko.
Rosh Hashanah celebrations at Le Dor Va Dor in Moscow
For Sukkot, a sukkah was built and decorated by students of the Institute for Modern Judaism, who also helped congregants fulfill the mitzvah of shaking the Lulav.
Unrolling the Torah Scroll for the community and Bnei Mitzvah at
Le Dor Va Dor Simchat Torah celebrations in Moscow
The culmination of the High Holy Day celebrations was Simchat Torah. This year, for the first time, all children who celebrated their Bar or Bat Mitzvah over the past year were invited to read their Torah passages again from the unrolled Torah. It was incredibly touching, and the community looks forward to making this an annual tradition.
For more pictures from High Holy Day celebrations at Le Dor Va Dor, visit their Facebook page here.
Rosh Hashanah services at congregation Ner Tamid in Simferopol were especially significant this year because while it was not the first time, congregational leader Kira Grubliten led services, it was her first time returning to the community to lead services as a first-year student at the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies in Moscow.
Kira Grubliten, first-year student at the Institute for Modern Jewish Studies
in Moscow, returns home to Simferopol to lead High Holiday Services
for Ner Tamid congregation
Ner Tamid members welcomed her back with great pride and excitement and were eager to learn with her in discussion groups. Netzer youth club members joined in leading services and running events. Overall, High Holy Day services were joyous and well-attended by the growing Ner Tamid Congregation.
Hatikvah, the Center for Progressive Judaism in Kiev, hosted more than 120 at its opening High Holy Days Rosh Hashanah event: interfaith prayer services jointly led by Rabbi Alexander Duchovny, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine and Kiev Progressive Congregations, and Kiev Bishop Vyshkogorodskiy Podolsky - Vladimir.
Coming together for interfaith prayers at Hatikva congregation in Kiev:
Rabbi Alexander Duchovny (left) and Bishop Vyshkogorodskiy
Podolsky – Vladimir (right)
The interfaith service opened with prayers for peace for individuals and communities across Kiev and the Ukraine, as well as the world at large, in an effort to usher in and emphasize the need for understanding, cooperation and coexistence among the many religions and peoples of the world. The event focused on the universality of faith and the role of God in the lives of individuals of every religion.
Unrolling the Sefer Torah in Hatikva congregation in Kiev,
Ukraine with Rabbi Alexander Duchovny
Other High Holy Day services and activities were well attended by the community with much enthusiasm and celebration.
High Holy Days in India by Rabbi Judith Edelman-Green
Experiences and intimate connections with the members of Rodef Shalom in Mumbai, affiliated with the Jewish Religious Union (JRU), made this holiday season the most outstanding that I can remember. Upon arrival in Mumbai I met with Norma Elijah and Elijah Jacob to plan the services. We have done this together for five years and, at this point, I know the congregants and their needs. My goal was inclusiveness and joy. One of their goals was to shorten the services, which we did - from four hours to three or less.
I conducted two study sessions upon arrival in Mumbai. The request from the community was “How to develop a spiritual connection with God.” Forty enthusiastic people from ages 8-88 attended these sessions. This community was eager to soak up any Rabbinic teaching that was offered.
For these sessions I painted four canvasses, each with a decorated letter from the Tetragram, as the congregation does not read Hebrew. The sessions were extremely well-received and enjoyed lively discussions among participants.
Blowing the shofar at High Holy Day services with Rabbi
Judith Edelman-Green in Mumbai in 2015
On Erev Rosh Hashanah we had about 100 congregants, dressed in their saris, kipot and finest clothes, buzzing with excitement. We led a children’s activity which served to bring the congregation together, some whom are relatives and friends, and some who do not know each other’s’ names. The game was called “Pokeman Go”, and I explained that we were using a resource with much more knowledge than technology: the elders of the community. The children, young adults and volunteers from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) turned their backs while I gave out a Pokeman symbol to adults with knowledge of the community. Each young person was given an interview question such as “what is the history of the Beney Israel Jews?” or “What is the history of the JRU community?” or “Please teach me a Beney Israel tune.” A child with special needs (unknown to me) approached me with his printed question “Teach me how to blow the shofar.” As I am experienced with those with special needs, and he could not manage a sound from the shofar, I gave him the shofar to hold until it was needed in the service. His mother was his spokesperson when everyone reported their findings back to the congregation. A sense of closeness and pride had been woven.
On the day of Rosh Hashanah about 60 people attended (more people attend evening and weekend services). Beney Israel tunes were sung by young and old, men and women. All were included - that is a defining feature of our services. Different readers read sections in English, I read in Hebrew, played the guitar and sang. Together with the JDC volunteers, I read Torah, they read Haftorah, impressively in a Beney Israel trope! Many couples were called up to the Torah. A very powerful moment was when I called up two widows to the Torah, both in mourning. The status of widows in India is most problematic (see the movie Water) so this elevated status was extremely touching and felt by all. We formed a chain of youth – six foot plus youth, and a ten year old, boys and girls, young men and women from the ark to the Torah reading table to physically show the spiritual idea that the youth pass on the traditions of the elders. This is most important in this congregation, in which so many young people go to study in the States and many have made Aliyah. While it is an aging congregation, the young people are active in youth groups and youth programs, and many go on Birthright Israel.
This year I did not attend Tashlich sea prayers during which the entire Jewish population of Mumbai gather in their finery to meet and pray. Rather, I conducted a second night Rosh Hashanah blessing at a congregant’s house, Rivka Elias. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, traditionally I go to see to the needs of the elderly of the community at an ashram for Jewish elderly with no family called Bayiti, two hours away in Panvel. It is a true delight to go with Elijah Jacobs, Indian Director of the JDC projects. We both distributed multiple gifts to the residents, 10 people and a house-mother. I told stories, sang songs with the guitar, blew the shofar and blessed them with a tallit. They invited us for a beautiful lunch and ate with us. In India one address the elderly with “aunty” and “uncle” after their name. It was a beautiful visit. I also visited a congregant with personal troubles; it is most helpful to the community to have pastoral care.
On Erev Yom Kippur we had about 100 people, all dressed in white. Services were simultaneously solemn and joyful. On the day of Yom Kippur there were about 60 people in the morning and perhaps 110 for the Neilah service in the evening. The entire congregation takes part in reading from the bimah and singing the Beney Israel tunes. We have developed a tradition of leaving the ark open for most of the day so that people can have private prayer before the open ark. They approach whenever they feel moved to do so. It is beautiful to see little children, the elderly, everyone approach and have some holy time alone while surrounded by community. A unique feature of the day was a play which we conducted about the book of Jonah. The props were provided by Norma Elijah - a sheet over two chairs for the “whale” and a turquoise sari to flap for the tumultuous sea. Congregants read their parts and made the story come alive - it became personal and relevant. I substituted “Mumbai” for “Nineveh” and shortened and adapted the story to an Indian flavor. Our bar mitzvah boy read from the Torah in the afternoon. All youth helped pass the Torah down. Children gathered around me for Shofar blowing and went outside to spot 3 stars in the sky. Norma Elijah read all the names of deceased congregants during a very moving and personal Yizkor service. It was an elevating experience. The theme throughout the holidays – in discussion groups, events, sermons and workshops – was about the religious and spiritual practices which bring one into contact with God.