Distanced, yet Social: Birmingham’s Beth-El Takes Rosh Hashanah to Gardens

By Marc Rice
Special to Southern Jewish Life

Along with the prayer, reflection and repentance that traditionally mark the Jewish High Holidays, innovation has now become an imperative. With online services the norm during this time of pandemic, many wondered how to overcome the resulting lack of social interaction as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approached.

Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El, a Conservative congregation, met the challenge by figuring out how to create a safe, outdoor in-person experience to celebrate the Jewish New Year 5781 when medical experts advised against having any form of in-person services at the synagogue.

Rabbi Stephen Slater, who conceived this approach, said the past six months made it clear to him and his staff that there is no substitute for physical presence. But he was stuck on how to bring people together without endangering their health.

“Then I realized I just needed to lean into the pandemic, to work with it instead of against it,” he said.

Slater also took inspiration from the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who participated in the March 21, 1965, Selma to Montgomery civil rights march, describing it as a way to “pray with his feet.”

Thus, the “Praying With Our Feet” services were held for Rosh Hashanah at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, drawing about 440 people for holiday prayers. A similar approach was taken for Yom Kippur services.

Planned with creativity, care and commitment by the Beth-El staff, and supplemented by online elements, the program enabled congregants to gather in a meaningful way at a time when traditional synagogue services are not possible because of the dangers posed by the pandemic.

Bethany Slater, Beth-El’s director of programming and Jewish education, said the organizers drew on both the ancient Jewish pilgrimage tradition and the Hasidic practice of “hitbodedut,” a prayerful walk in nature.

“It reminded me of the days when I lived in Jerusalem, when I would walk to services and see other Jews, walking to or from their synagogues. We had a profound feeling of togetherness,” she said.

She noted that congregants were joined by Christian clergy, including the Rev. Terry Ellison from Montgomery, and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, symbolizing a broader commitment to the welfare of the community.

Adding to the beauty of the occasion, the second-day Rosh Hashanah service included the sounding of the shofar, which could be heard across the park.

Any anxiety over whether coronavirus concerns would diminish this year’s holiday were thus overcome. As the hot Alabama summer waned, mild temperatures in the mid-70s didn’t hurt, either.

“I feel I haven’t lacked for anything in regard to spiritual fulfillment this holiday,” said attendee Bernard Axel.

“I was dreading this holiday because I just wasn’t feeling it,” added Esther Schuster. “Until I got to the Botanical Gardens. The thought, the details, the relevance of every piece from beginning to end overwhelmed me and grabbed me. You gave me Rosh Hashana in all its beauty and meaning.”

The family-oriented Botanical Gardens services included a three-quarter-mile walking path with a series of stations allowing for prayer and reflection. The program book provided prayers, poetry and prompts that formed the basis for the reflection at the gardens. Stations included traditional elements like Torah reading, holiday songs and Kaddish. There were eight stations on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, then two — shofar blowing and a visit to the Garden beehives — were added for the second day.

As plans were formulated, there was a desire to have the usual open-ark experience at the end of Yom Kippur, but even that was deemed inadvisable. Instead, the congregation’s portable ark was brought to the Gardens and those on the walk could have a moment of private contemplation in front of the ark.

There were also unique elements like reflections with the aid of Bonsai trees, provided by congregant Doug Unkenholz, and “intention stones” to carry and help focus one’s thoughts.
Throughout, social distancing was observed, with masks required and admissions staggered to minimize crowding.

For those unable to do the walk, there was a livestream of the service, followed by parts of a more traditional morning service that can be done without a minyan, pre-recorded in the sanctuary.

Rabbi Slater’s sermon for Rosh Hashana summed up his intentions.

“We need to walk into a new year, a fresh beginning. For this reason, I wanted us to gather together, and to include our neighboring ministers from outside of our tradition, to join in this prayer walk. Let heaven hear us say, that we are throwing out the sins and the sadness of the past year. We want to begin again together.

“May we begin again, with dedication, and love, and deeper unity. As we walk our way through this pandemic, may God give us the fortitude, and the inspiration to keep reaching out, to keep connecting, to keep listening and learning. Here in Birmingham, Alabama, we live in a holy place. A place where a holy community can walk together with God. Let us bring our hearts and thoughts back to our city and prepare ourselves to walk together with all her citizens, to walk in prayer, and in peace and in justice with our fellow man.”