GLOUCESTER – As members of Temple Ahavat Achim sang Hannah Szenes’ “Eli, Eli” during a recent Kabbalat Shabbat service, one line seemed particularly appropriate.
Rabbi David Kudan and music director Abigale Reisman led the service on July 7. The congregation recited the words of World War II Special Ops Executive Szenes, longing for several features of the natural world to “never end,” including “the rush of the waters.” Szenes was captured by the Nazis and executed by firing squad when she refused to be interrogated about her mission.
In the background during the service, the waters were indeed rushing, as the congregation gathered at Gloucester’s Good Harbor Beach.
“It’s a way of building community, experiencing nature, which is so important to us,” Kudan said earlier that day, calling the beach Shabbat “another way for us to connect to the world and deepen our spiritual roots – maybe we should say watering our spiritual roots.”
Beach Shabbats are becoming a popular feature of Jewish summertime life on the North Shore. In this coastal area, several local congregations are offering two during the season, sometimes at different locations.
At Good Harbor, waves crashed and seagulls swooped while Kudan and Reisman led an estimated 140 attendees, accompanied by a diverse band that featured vocals, guitar, tambourine and maracas. Congregants watched from beach chairs and enjoyed post-service pizza.
“I think that I connect my spirituality to nature in a lot of ways,” Reisman said. “The ocean is just so powerful. I think it can connect one closer to God. A lot of songs even talk about the ocean.”
Attendees included two newcomers to the United States: Elen Odudovsky-Pruzhansky and her mother Olya, who had arrived the previous day after a long journey from their home in the war-ravaged Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
“We couldn’t imagine it would last for so long,” Elen said of the Russian invasion. “We didn’t plan to leave.” Yet, she said, “The situation became worse and worse.”
On Good Harbor, mother and daughter enjoyed a peaceful setting, far from Kiev, where Elen remembered missiles in the air every night.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” asked congregant Elaine Byrne, who is serving as a coordinator for the family in the U.S.
Reflecting on seaside services, Byrne said, “I think we might have been one of the first temples that had Kabbalat Shabbat on the beach.”
Ahavat Achim is having another such service on Aug. 4 at Stage Fort Park in Gloucester. Other congregations offering such Shabbats this year include Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly and Congregation Shirat Hayam of the North Shore in Swampscott.
“People will walk over and be closer to the ocean,” said B’nai Abraham President Bonnie Kaplan Goldsmith. “It’s an incredibly spiritual place. You’re outside, in a beautiful space, appreciating God’s beauty. It’s wonderful.”
B’nai Abraham has been holding beachside Shabbats for over a decade. Nearby Lynch Park in Beverly is a favorite location.
Shirat Hayam began offering seaside Shabbat services last summer that proved popular, according to membership committee chair Gitte Kushner. They have returned for this year, with a service scheduled for Aug. 18 at Phillips’ Beach in Swampscott. A previous service in June was canceled due to an inclement weather forecast.
None of the beaches used for services on the North Shore were among the 70 closed for swimming across the state because of high bacteria counts brought on by the heavy rain runoffs in early July.
“I think people enjoy hanging out at the beach,” Kushner said. “It’s a very relaxing atmosphere. You can come in shorts. People enjoy the camaraderie and community outside of synagogue, having a Shabbat service on the beach with family and friends.”
Reflecting on the overall day and event, Ahavat Achim president Rich Quateman said, “This is a wonderful way to connect man with nature. We’re really blessed on Cape Ann to have such remarkable resources.”
“It is so spectacular to be here in nature, with the waves crashing, the bigness of the ocean,” his wife Susan Quateman said. “There’s a real link between spirituality and nature. I love the fact we’re getting elderly members and families with children. It’s an intergenerational celebration at the beach.”