Jews do two things on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year: pray, and fast.
At one Yom Kippur gathering in Washington this year, they won’t be doing either.
Reading from the Torah? Abstaining from work? Reciting traditional confessions of sin and vows of repentance? Hearing a sermon? No, no, no and no.
“It’s not a service. We’re not using that word. We call it an experience,” Rabbi Aaron Potek said. Potek hopes that this wildly unconventional gathering — this “experience,” if you will — may appeal to young Jews who otherwise might skip observing Yom Kippur altogether.
He’s leading the get-together along with Sarah Hurwitz, who worked as Michelle Obama’s chief speechwriter during the previous administration and is writing a book about Judaism. The event takes place in a beer garden — not exactly the standard venue for a service on a day of fasting from food and water, although the event starts at 11 a.m., when the bar will be closed.
The event, run by the organization GatherDC, sold out all of its 120 tickets at $18 each, and has a growing waitlist.
Even some of the least observant Jews tend to take Yom Kippur seriously. The Pew Research Center asked Jews whether they fasted on the holiday in 2012, and more than half said they did — including more than 20 percent of Jews who describe themselves as affiliated only culturally, with “no religion.” The same study found that although millennial Jews were much more likely than their grandparents’ generation to describe themselves as nonreligious, Jews in every age bracket attend religious services at very similar rates.
But Potek describes the target audience for this event as adults in their 20s and 30s whom he terms “post-college, pre-family.”
“That is a target demographic that isn’t really being met by other institutions, or that’s at least a life stage where more diverse opportunities are appealing,” he said. He speaks as a member of the group — he’s 31 and single. But he’s also an Orthodox rabbi.
He doesn’t always sound like one when he speaks about this program. “I wasn’t coming at this from a mind-set of observing Jewish law. That’s not a relevant framework for most Jews in America today,” Potek said. “I think it’s time we stop doing things because we feel that we have to and start doing things we feel add meaning to our lives.” And: “I have no agenda beyond this particular day. This is not a gateway drug and then secretly I hope that I see you next year in an Orthodox synagogue.”
Anna Goldman bought a ticket to the experience, which will be the first time she has ever attended any formal event for Yom Kippur. She didn’t grow up going to synagogue, but started researching her family’s Jewish roots years ago and more recently began exploring how the religion suits her spirituality.
“I’ve never found the draw to go to those,” she said of synagogue services. “I’ve never felt necessarily welcomed into those communities based on my background with Judaism. This is the first time I’ve really wanted to go to an organized Yom Kippur service.”
Goldman, 30, said GatherDC’s events for young seekers appeal to her: “You shouldn’t just go to a traditional service because the Torah says to, or because your parents told you to go to services on Yom Kippur. I’m on this path to explore where my Judaism is going to lead me.”
Potek and Hurwitz wouldn’t say much about what will happen during the not-service, which they created from scratch. They want it to remain a surprise for the people who attend. But there will be meditation, as well as activities designed to prompt reflection on forgiveness and other themes — including journaling. Anyone who doesn’t want to write on the holiday, which would be forbidden for observant Jews, doesn’t have to. (Likewise, anyone who wants to bring food and eat during the most notable fast day on the Jewish calendar is also allowed.)
Potek and Hurwitz will both speak, though they aren’t calling their talks sermons, just like they’re not calling the gathering a service or calling any of the activities prayer. Potek said they also won’t talk much about social action or politics, calling such discussion “a distraction” during the event.
At the end, they’ll study the portion of the book of Isaiah traditionally read on Yom Kippur, which conveys God’s vision of a just fast: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke. To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”
After that, the attendees will assemble lunches for hungry neighbors in the District.
Potek was ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox seminary that has drawn criticism from other Orthodox groups for its emphasis on connecting with Jews of a wide range of religious practices, not just those who follow Jewish law traditionally. He said he knows that some will frown upon his Yom Kippur event for dropping the ordinary trappings of the solemn holiday but that he wanted to create an option for people who didn’t want to go to a synagogue service.
“To me, in the rabbinate, I’m in the business of service, not services,” he said.