As a child, the High Holidays—Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)—were marked with reluctant trips to our family synagogue where the tone was somber and reflective. The gloomy music was as uncomfortable as the blue blazer I reserved only for services and bar mitzvahs. When I was not trying to decipher the purpose of the holiday through incomprehensible liturgy, I was making faces at friends or wandering out to the hallway to meet other wayward Jews, usually the parents of my friends who volunteered as ushers to avoid sitting through services. My once-radical synagogue, which had been on the front lines of the civil rights movement and hosted the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s, had become staid and boring. It offered little to my generation. Not surprisingly, many of my peers drifted away from temple.
While many synagogues struggle with how to bring a new, diverse generation together, a nationwide movement of spiritual communities is creating radically inclusive spaces for Jewish practice, finding new ways to engage people where they are, across the spectrum of identity, background, age, and belief. With the High Holidays starting on Friday, September 18, Mishkan Chicago, a Jewish spiritual community serving over 5,000 individuals annually, will present a unique and engaging High Holiday experience in response to the pandemic.
Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann founded Mishkan Chicago on a Shabbat in 2011 in a living room. Nine years later, they offer weekly Shabbat services, classes, small group gatherings, and holiday celebrations at locations across the city without being tethered to a single location like most synagogues. She notes that every generation of Jews in America brought a sense of revolution, from the turn-of-the-century immigrants creating Jewish community in a new country, to Jewish families in the suburbs creating social change in synagogues that in many ways mirrored churches in their structure and presentation, and now today with groups like Mishkan.
Today people are longing for “what serves the needs of the moment,” Rabbi Heydemann says, “the children and grandchildren of those renegade founders are now feeling like what was progressive and forward thinking two generations ago is now no longer as radical.” Questioning why people came to synagogues, how Mishkan can provide that, and how they can improve on that led them to create innovative gatherings that foster community and feed a spiritual need often absent in traditional settings. During the pandemic, they have held anti-racist book groups, weekly services, and other gatherings both spiritual and social to bring members from around Chicago, and even outside Chicago, together.
Realizing that the High Holidays no longer need to be about going to a synagogue, especially this year, Mishkan Chicago has brought together a team of performance and film artists, many who were (unsurprisingly) already connected with the organization, to produce a rare experience that merges the rituals of the holiday with music, film, and theater. They originally planned for services to take place at the Auditorium Theatre after they sold out the Vic Theatre for the past two years, but in the coronavirus era the High Holiday experience will instead be a combination of interactive streaming services online, as well as in-person experiences around Chicago.
The Mishkan team wanted to provide the experience they know people long for this time of year, while also repackaging it in a safe engaging way.This posed a challenge they were up for and excited to produce. “There are three basic dimensions of the High Holiday spiritual experience,” Rabbi Heydemann points out, “one is prayer (tefilah), one is introspection (teshuvah), and one is giving and being part of justice work (tzedakah).” They made sure that this new experience embodies all three of these important aspects.
Rebecca Stevens, Mishkan Chicago’s director of strategy and design, welcomed the challenge, noting that “limitations are the things that make you creative.” Stevens is a theater artist by trade, and after converting to Judaism found a natural fit with Rabbi Heydemann, who she says is the “collaborator I was born to work with.” Along with more than half a dozen other theater and visual artists at Mishkan, they have been working to produce what Stevens calls a “ritualized performance,” not unlike other Jewish holidays like the Passover Seder.
The services themselves will be livestreamed, featuring asynchronously recorded prayers and songs from over 200 community members as well as sermons, guest speakers of various faiths and Jewish denominations, family services, and interactive chats. In the spirit of the full accessibility that Mishkan Chicago champions, all services are closed-captioned.
For those longing for in-person celebrations, Mishkan will be holding a Selichot drive-in sing-along for members only at the Davis Theatre pop-up drive-in at Lincoln Yards on September 12, the Saturday night before High Holidays. Slightly inspired by Grease, the event (which begins at 6:30 PM) will feature singing in cars and food available for purchase from Ada Street restaurant. Also, on the afternoon of Saturday, September 19 at 5:30 PM, the traditional blowing of the shofar, or ram’s horn, will take place in five pop-up locations around Chicagoland. Creative social distancing, required masks, and hand sanitizer will ensure safety. Following the shofar blasts, participants will be invited to partake in Taslich, the symbolic casting off of past transgressions and bad mojo in preparation for the New Year. With High Holidays this joyous and spiritually engaging, Mishkan Chicago might just bring this wayward Jew back into the fold. v
For more information and registration, visit mishkanchicago.org.