Growing up in Bordentown, Samantha Shain was often so bored with High Holidays services that she volunteered to babysit so parents could attend the day-long observances at her Burlington County synagogue.
Nearly a decade later, as a member of Kol Tzedek congregation in West Philadelphia, Shain, 26, is helping develop programs that mark the High Holidays in ways that speak to Jews of a new generation.
Shain, a database administrator at the William Penn Foundation, took part in designing a synagogue workshop on gender expression and its roots in childhood, a session scheduled for the afternoon of Yom Kippur, a day set aside for reflection, fasting, and making amends.
The workshop is one of six to be offered Wednesday at a temple where many of the 450 members are younger than 30. Sandwiched between the tradition of memorializing the dead and praying in the late afternoon, congregants will sing about healing. They'll meditate. They'll sculpt Play-Doh figures that reflect holiday themes. They'll walk to a nearby park to watch birds.
"I think young people are looking for spaces that are authentic and that don't take for granted certain synagogue assumptions around race, class, gender, and Zionism," said Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, whose life is perhaps a testament to bucking tradition. His website biography describes him as a "white, queer, trans person of Ashkenazi and Italian descent" who eats baked ziti on Rosh Hashanah.
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Jewish identity is evolving and across most age groups, though most dramatically among Millennials and Gen Xers and Ys. In increasing numbers, people say they are Jewish based on culture, ancestry, and ethnicity, but not religion, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center. Synagogue affiliation has plunged, intermarriage is now the norm, and young Jews are less attached to the institutions of their forebears. About 32 percent of those born after 1980 say they are "Jews of no religion," compared with just 19 percent of Baby Boomers, the study found.
So, across the region, they are reflecting on their lives during High Holiday yoga classes; group discussions on racial justice; quickie, 45-minute services; and bread baking to raise funds for anti-hunger programs.
Jon Argaman, 35, a Kol Tzedek board member, will attend a traditional service – but also take a walk in the woods.
"A lot of these holidays, in one way or another, are marking cycles of the year, and that's when I really want to be outside, hanging with some trees," said Argaman, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.
Cantor Scott Borsky of Cherry Hill founded Synagogue Without Walls, a nonprofit that takes Judaism to people outside traditional worship spaces. "Jews can meet God almost anywhere — whether it's outdoors, someone's home, or a field, or a beer garden," he said.
During the High Holidays, Borsky chats online with students about such issues as sin and atonement — a practice that's more realistic for young people who don't want to disconnect from technology and spend hours in a synagogue reflecting on the past year.
Last Saturday, Debbie Shapiro and Joanna Brinton hosted a gathering of young families as part of the New Year observance.
Shapiro, 37, of South Philadelphia, a director of community engagement and presenting at Rowan University in Glassboro, and Brinton, 34, of Fishtown, who works in development and alumni relations at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, met last November when they traveled with their husbands and 18 other couples to Israel as part of a program to cultivate Jewish engagement.
Honeymoon Israel sends groups of young couples — each with at least one Jewish partner — to Israel for nine days with a goal of connecting the couples to Judaism and to each other.
"People are figuring out who they want to spend their life with, do they want to have a family, and what does that look like when you are navigating faith and family," said Rachel Zieleniec, the program's vice president of marketing and communications. "Having 20 couples together who are all having those same conversations is a recipe for magic."
But the trip serves only as a "catalyst," Zieleniec said. When the couples return home, Honeymoon Israel helps them to stay in touch and organize reunions and events to create a community of young Jews who can support each other.
Members of Shapiro and Brinton's group have met four times since their trip — to see a play, celebrate Passover, and observe Shabbat. On Saturday, families discussed the personal meaning of the holidays and snacked on Middle Eastern cuisine, including falafel, pita, hummus, and roasted chicken marinated in Israeli spices.
"Lots of people in their 20s and 30s don't want to join a synagogue," Brinton said, "but they want to celebrate the holidays."
On Wednesday at Rodeph Shalom in Center City, the synagogue's Young Friends group will mark the end of the holiday not by breaking the day-long Yom Kippur fast with bagels and other Jewish breakfast food at the synagogue, but by going to dinner and a play that is part of Philadelphia's Fringe Festival, a 17-day arts event.
The young friends want more out of their faith than synagogue tradition, which sometimes "isn't that exciting," said Jill Ivey, co-chair of the Young Friends group.