How Radical Ritual Empowers a New Spiritual Community-Part 1

Rabbi Sid’s Editor’s Note: The DNA of CLI is transformational change, both of the American rabbinate and, more importantly, of the kinds of spiritual communities that can engage the passion and interests of 21st century Jews. Rabbi Lori is a graduate of CLI’s inaugural cohort. The Open Temple was incubated when Rabbi Lori was a CLI Fellow. Her creative re-imagining of all things Jewish should be an inspiration to others. This article, which we will publish in 5 installments in successive months, is the longest we’ve ever published. The article also sets the stage for CLI’s co-sponsorship of the Kol Tefillah Conference, scheduled to take place January 19-21, 2024 at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

The Open Temple, founded in 2013, creates a ritual space for “the Jew-ishly curious and those who love us.” As one who returned to Judaism in my 20s (and without any awareness of Jewish ritual practice or education growing up), I envisioned a spiritual playground where seekers from the periphery could wander along with their PhDs/JDs/MDs and not feel at odds or shamed because their Jewish literacy didn’t match their Ivy League pedigree. Open Temple’s radically inclusive High Holiday Ritual Lab exemplifies how we accomplish this and offers a template for other communities seeking to create a compelling and enchanting “on-ramp” for the High Holidays. Many of the people entering into Jewish life at Open Temple come to Jewish practice like a high school senior merging onto the freeway for the first time; on-ramps provide pathways to contain the many emotions of anxiety, resistance, and the deep but mixed feelings of entering into a Jewish spiritual practice during the High Holidays.

Most communities in the progressive Jewish world overlook such on-ramps, and yet our calendar is filled with invitations into the journey. For most Jews in the non-Orthodox world, High Holidays begins at sundown on Rosh haShanah or possibly with Selichot services that take place on the Saturday night before Rosh haShanah. At Open Temple, our observance begins with the traditional call to fast on the 17th of Tammuz, which is likely to fall in July, a good two to three months before Rosh haShanah. We offer the fast as a reminder that, in the midst of the sun and the surf, there is a soul. Our beachside community is invited into the annual sunrise to sunset fast that recalls the moment that Moses breaks the tablets upon which, according to tradition, the Ten Commandments were written by God.  Moses’ anger is triggered as he descends Mt. Sinai with the tablets and sees the children of Israel engaging in idolatry with the Golden Calf. We frame the fast day as an invitation to Jewish practice in the midst of summer frivolity. It also sets the stage for Tisha B’Av, three weeks later, when we announce the theme of that year’s High Holiday Ritual Lab.

Embodied Ritual

Like any journey, we need guideposts to show the way. Open Temple chooses a different theme for our High Holiday Ritual Lab each year, with vivid images symbolic of the road ahead. Themes of past years include: Breathe (during Covid); Red meet Blue (addressing our country’s political unrest); Play (a pre-requisite for cultivating a spiritual practice); A Space Odyssey (seeing the High Holidays as a telescope into the soul); and Grow (when the year coincided with the conclusion of a sh’mitah cycle.). Each year’s theme is connected to a graphic where we hide image teasers of the High Holiday Ritual Lab. For example, when we first included Goat Yoga as a part of the mincha Avodah service on Yom Kippur, we introduced a goat into the graphic. Shofar, apples and honey, Torah, and other holiday symbols are playfully hidden in our seasonal graphics, inviting curiosity.

Because our Tisha B’Av observance launches our High Holiday Ritual Lab, we re-name the commemoration “Broken”. If the practices and liturgy of the High Holidays are meant to re-orient us to a life of repentance, prayer and good deeds, we need to name the spiritual malady for which the season has been prescribed. “Broken” captures that spiritual malady. Tisha b’Av arouses an experience of loss. Open Temple transforms its facility into a space of mourning, resembling a shiva house, as our community is invited into a reflection of what is broken in our lives, or lost, like the Temple in Jerusalem.

One year ago, we held a silent headphone walk through our neighborhood as we emerged from the pandemic. With the homeless numbers reaching national records, our silent parade was like a walk alongside Jeremiah, the prophet credited with writing the Book of Lamentations. We walked through our own “Jerusalem,” experiencing all that has been lost during the pandemic. From abandoned churches and stores, copious graffiti and boarded up businesses, to a homeless encampment that we walked through, participants witnessed real destruction in real time throughout the night walk as the cantillation of Eicha played in their ears. We bore witness to the abandon and exile of our neighbors, who live on the streets. When we emerged, participants were handed journals to reflect upon what they witnessed that was broken. They were also given prompts that asked: “What is broken in your lives?” The objective was to prepare our people for an ascent back into the Temple during the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe). The abject poverty and human need surrounding us amplified the acute sense of the loss we all felt through pandemic (or Jerusalem in 70 CE); our hearts cracked open.

The High Holidays are a symphony and the movements transition from one to the next in a dynamic sweep.  From the ashes of destruction, we move to the exaltation of our love and yichud (Oneness). It is as if the calendar year teases us with dramatic swings from one emotion to the next, as just six days following Tisha b’Av, we welcome Tu b’Av (the 15th of Av), aka, Midsummer’s Night in Judaism.

Midsummer’s Night in Judaism is akin to Shakespeare’s – with the voluptuous, full moon hanging low in the sky. It’s not the Shakespearian characters of Helena and Demetrius frolicking about town, but a fleet of kayaks on a canal in Venice, CA. Our service invites the seeker into a space of what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement.” The evening traditionally had a Sadie Hawkins spin, during which young maidens, dressed in white, went into the fields, seeking their intended beloved. Tu B’Av foreshadows Yom Kippur because the tradition often imagines Israel entering into a covenantal relationship with God on this holy day.  

Tu b’Av symbolizes the consummation of love and a taste of redemption. Open Temple’s “Night of Love” fosters community and enchantment, our band floating on the canals beneath the moonlight sky as three dozen kayaks make their way through waters. In the past, we have had fire jugglers on a bridge, a band on a barge, and even King Solomon reciting his poetry on a paddle board. The evening is a reminder that every soul journey must be fueled with hope and purpose to one’s personal call. Tu b’Av, in all of its sensual glory, prepares the collective for the weeks ahead of them.

The Call: First of Elul

With our fixed lunar calendar, the Jewish year connects our minds and bodies to the rhythm of the earth. Our agrarian cycle provides the roots for Jewish observances, grounding us in the subtle awakening of birth, life and death. In the ancient world, the first of Elul prepared us with a series of calls back into the field – our work was dawning. The blast of the Shofar for 30 days helps to reset our intention from vacations and the relaxation that summer offers to the work that lies ahead for each of us.

At Open Temple, “The Call” is a sound-bath, timed to the first of Elul. We gather on the beach with singing bowls and gongs, sand and sea. Our meditation connects us – through sound waves and ocean waves – to the waves of spiritual awakening in our brains. We are hard wired to continue delaying, an endless summer always a fantasy. But the fantasy must end, and we must return to the work of the land and of the soul.

The Call is also a moral and ethical awakening. Our meditation is followed by a chanting of Psalm 27: “God is my light and my salvation…”  Collectively, we enter into a religious practice that is akin to creating a “temple of the soul”. At Open Temple, this practice is modified as an understanding that we are building a temple of wellness practice, grounded in Jewish modalities that support our body’s ability to show up in the world in pursuit of Torah, Divine service and acts of lovingkindness. The sound-bath is preceded by a visual labyrinth of middot, “soul traits” connected to cheshbon hanefesh, a soul inventory, that will be followed by an actual labyrinth walk during our Yom Kippur urban retreat. The sound-bath invites us into a deep slumber where all of these practices can mix, as the ma’ariv of Elul begins. We awaken from this practice by the call of the shofar. During our slumber, we have journeyed into Elul.

For the Open Temple community, Elul is filled with shofar blasts around town. As the rabbi, I carry the shofar with me throughout the month, stopping at crosswalks, in the middle of the famed Venice Boardwalk, and even as I stroll down Abbot Kinney Boulevard en route to a lunch meeting, and invite others to awaken their slumbering souls. The idea of Elul must be carried by community. And to amplify this message, Open Temple posts “30 Days of Elul” kavanot (intentions) on social media as daily meditations and prompts for a daily deepening. The goal is to awaken the seeker for the journey. Each post is inspired by something I see in real time in our neighborhood, and represents the concept of hirhur t’shuvah, or “awakening to return.” The lens of the camera frames the work of t’shuvah in the world around us, and brief explanations on social media provide jewels of Jewish wisdom as we prepare our souls for turning. Like running a marathon, or in our part of the world, any immersive happening such as Burning Man, our experience of the upcoming event is only as deep as our preparation for it.

Our Selichot service, aka “the shvitz” embodies this intention as we visit Wi Spa, a local Korean spa. There, we chant, meditate, share our intentions for the year, our struggles, and some tears… and Kimchee. The evening always ends with a chanting of Avenu Malkeinu in a sauna, followed by a shofar blast. The body is open and supple. The soul emptied of impurities. We merge from the on-ramp, accelerating into our High Holiday Ritual Lab.


Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founding rabbi of The Open Temple in Venice, CA. She developed this unique spiritual community model as a Fellow in Cohort 1 of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) from 2013-15 and then continued working on it when participating in the Open Dor Project. She and her husband, Dr. Joel Shapiro, live in the Venice canals with their two daughters and labradoodle.


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