GLOUCESTER – The rabbi at Temple Ahavat Achim is inviting congregants to try a new way of preparation for the ancient High Holidays tradition of Tashlich in Gloucester.
There would be no pieces of bread thrown into the sea. Gathering at a local beach on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, congregants would work together to collect stones “that will be returned to the ocean as a physical symbol of our commitments to leave behind unhealthy, stifling and destructive behaviors” in the New Year, according to the temple’s website, taagloucester.org.
When congregants have gone to nearby Pavilion Beach for Tashlich in past years, they were distracted by some hungry visitors: not fish, but birds, “a dozen squawking seagulls swirling around,” said Rabbi Steven Lewis, who is now asking congregants to consider beach stones as an alternative.
“I came up with rocks because they’re a natural thing from the water,” Lewis explained. “Every local environmental agency will tell you not to feed the birds.” Using rocks “becomes a way to create an opportunity for people to prepare a little deeper about what opportunities [exist in the month of] Elul; think about what possibilities exist in Tashlich [other than] bird-feeding.”
Before becoming a rabbi, Lewis’ background included environmental education and community building. His Tashlich idea incorporates both of these components.
“It is one of the few Jewish rituals that are specifically supposed to take place outside,” Lewis said. “There’s an environmental component to Tashlich that I can’t think of as [being] in any other Jewish ritual. It appeals to me very much.”
Gathering and casting the rocks would be an exercise in community building. “It’s much more significant [if] people prepare, prepare together, do the ritual together,” Lewis said. He wants people to be engaged to “think about the past year, and what you want to do better in the coming year.”
The rabbi said at this point, the stones concept is “still an idea,” one to be discussed in sessions scheduled for Sept. 19 and 22.
“I plan to attend his Tashlich program as I am curious to see what it is about,” Temple President Eric Kaplan wrote in an email. “Until then, I won’t be able to comment much about his program.”
“But,” Kaplan added, “Knowing the Rabbi, his suggestion of using stones for our sins instead of a huge amount of bread makes sense to me.”
Lewis said Pavilion Beach is the closest to Ahavat Achim, less than a mile away from the historic synagogue that now includes 190 families. The beach has a further connection to the temple: It is near the space the congregation used as a temporary synagogue when its building burned down in 2007.
Lewis describes the beach as a calm space situated at the end of Gloucester Harbor, making it possible to observe Tashlich at either high or low tide.
There’s something special about the sea, said Lewis, who participated in Tashlich services along the Charles River and the Brookline Reservoir while attending rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Newton.
“For me, the sea, the ocean, is a more majestic landscape,” Lewis said. “Looking out into the ocean is kind of more awesome than on the banks of the Charles River. It sort of has a drama to it that way.
“I think … the ocean’s such a part of life in Gloucester,” Lewis said. “We see it, hear it, life is sort of connected to that feature of our landscape, much more deeply than in places I’ve lived or worked in that were right on the water. It’s much more meaningful because of that.”
All of these factors have the rabbi hopeful about how his proposal will be received.
“I hope it’s successful, that people respond to it, find it meaningful, and that it will be something we do every year,” Lewis said.