Celebrating Rosh Hashana With Less ‘Oy,’ More ‘Joy’ and a Bit of Gospel
“The purpose of this service is to excite you,” began Rabbi Perry Berkowitz, who along with his sister, Rabbi Leah Berkowitz, runs East Side Synagogue, an unconventional congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
As usual, the siblings were sharing the same pulpit and holding their nontraditional brand of Rosh Hashana services on Monday.
In Manhattan, the holiday can often mean high-priced tickets at prestigious synagogues, but the Berkowitz’s services seek only a reasonable contribution and are held in a rented space in the Unitarian Church of All Souls on Lexington Avenue.
The services are freewheeling, rollicking affairs that have the feel of a gospel church. They give evangelical-type sermons and are backed by a gospel choir that sings liturgical music often in Hebrew.
The songs can range from hymns and spirituals to klezmer and pop, and they often spur congregants to form conga lines down the aisles.
Monday’s service ran for five hours and varied from fiery sermons to musical romps backed by a spirited band.
The choir swayed and clapped while singing a spiritual. The band played “Shalom Aleichem” and then a klezmer song as congregants danced the hora. Rabbi Leah Berkowitz led a line of dancers through the aisles, out the door and back to the front of the bimah, or raised platform.
An hour or so into the service, a sharp voice rang from a man in an embroidered robe and a skullcap — a Jewish gospel singer named Joshua Nelson, the synagogue’s “kosher gospel” singer, who began singing in Hebrew but in the style of Mahalia Jackson.
Mr. Nelson fits in neatly with the Berkowitz’s style of worship, one that Rabbi Perry Berkowitz said was inspired partly by a mentor, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Polish-born rabbi and renowned theologian who was active in the civil rights movement.
“When he first came over from Warsaw, he tried many denominations looking for that passion, that intensity, that fervor of his Hasidic youth,” the rabbi said. “He finally found it in a gospel service in a black church, and we’re trying to bring that into the synagogue.”
Rabbi Perry Berkowitz said one goal was to attract black Jews, like Mr. Nelson, to the services.
“They are the hidden part of the community,” he said, adding that the congregation welcomes interfaith couples and people of all sexual orientations, as well as nonobservant Jews unaffiliated with a temple.
Donna Tabas, a midwife from Rockland County, who sat near the front with her husband, Dr. Ira Tabas, a cardiovascular researcher at Columbia University, said she had recently found her spiritual home here.
“I tried everything — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Chabad — and there were benefits to all of them but these services are much more experiential,” she said. “They bring people in from all over the place. It’s much deeper than just being glued to the prayer book.”
Allen Katz, a software sales executive from the Upper East Side, said, “Tickets for Rosh Hashana in a Manhattan synagogue can cost you $4,000 for the family, but once you come here, and you like it, there’s no place else you’ll ever go.”
The Berkowitzes lead services with the comedic patter of a vaudevillian team, interrupting each other and interspersing snappy quips and references to Talmudic law.
After wishing the congregation a Happy New Year and getting a less than hearty response, Rabbi Perry Berkowitz asked his sister, “What do you think?”
She shook her head and they tried it again and the response was louder.
Rabbi Perry Berkowitz told congregants that someone asked why God permitted rain on Rosh Hashana.
“They said, ‘Don’t you have a connection upstairs,’” the rabbi recounted. “I said, ‘Sorry, I’m in sales, not management.’”
He urged the congregation to wipe away any negative associations from the past year and to start the new year, “Not with oy, but with joy.”
He told them to exhale and let go of “all of the oys of the past year.”
“Everyone let out a collective oy,” he directed them “One, two, three. Oy.”
A spirited “Oy” resounded in the worship space.
He said he overheard a woman recently say that “Rosh Hashana is all about buying food at Zabar’s, the renowned gourmet food market on the Upper West Side.
It was not, he said, but conceded later in the service that the post-service lunch had been donated “of all places, by Zabar’s.”
The siblings trained with influential leaders of what is known as the Jewish Renewal movement, like Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Their father, William Berkowitz, was an influential rabbi on the Upper West Side.
During the service, the Berkowitzes touched on social and political themes including racism, anti-Semitism, Black Lives Matter, climate change and homophobia.
After Rabbi Perry Berkowitz blew the shofar, or ram’s horn, the choir broke into an energetic version of “Walking in the Light of God.”
Judy Wolfe and Terry Phelan, two sisters from Manhattan, said they began attending Rosh Hashana services with the Berkowitzes 35 years ago when they were held in a rented movie theater on Third Avenue and 72nd Street.
“When you smelled popcorn, you knew the service was over and the movie was starting,” Ms. Wolfe said. “Now, we’ve become kind of like roadies, we follow them around.”
Then they held hands with Mr. Nelson and made their dancing recessional down the center aisle to “This Little Light of Mine.”