The Sea Can Be A Synagogue

Or, Why I Spent Rosh Hashanah At The Beach

The tide rises, breathe in; the tide falls; breathe out.

I know how it’ll look every time, yet every time the beauty shocks me even more. The waves crash into the mountain and the sun sets right where the horizon kisses the sky. The Santa Monica beach is my place of joy.

Growing up, my family never felt too connected to High Holiday services. Our synagogue was too small so they moved services to a big ballroom. It was an event space, where I’d been to Bat Mitzvah parties and my parents had been to special events; it didn’t feel spiritual, or inspiring.

One year when I got home from camp, I asked my parents if we could try doing Rosh Hashanah by the beach instead. It didn’t take much convincing; they were in. We grabbed our picnic blanket, siddurim (prayer books), water bottles, apples and honey, and headed down to the sand. We sat, shared our favorite blessings, took moments of silence to reflect back and think forward, and enjoyed our time together welcoming in the new year.

It then happened the year after, and the year after that, becoming a family tradition.

Over the past few years, however, I haven’t been able to partake in the tradition. I’ve spent Rosh Hashanah in a church, in a small Chilean town, and in Toronto. I live in Mississippi now – but this year I had the chance to return (Teshuvah) to my favorite spot and my favorite tradition. Yet a few things made it different.

First, on Erev Rosh Hashanah I went to a beautiful service at Nashuva (a spiritual community led by rabbi and author Naomi Levy) with my best friend from camp and her family. The rabbi gave her sermon about the holiness in water: how it rejuvenates, refreshes, and calms. While sitting there listening, I began to finally understand why I love the beach so deeply. The unknown, the revitalization, the comfort and discomfort, the cyclical nature of the tide. Each time I’m home, I return to the ocean loving how the tide ebbs and flows as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow so beautifully describes in his poem: the tide rises, the tide falls (you can read the whole poem here).

I then realized that I love Rosh Hashanah for the same reason: the cycle. Therefore, spending Rosh Hashanah at the beach made even more sense to me. We return every year to the same holiday celebrating with round challahs, reciting the same blessings and returning to the same Torah portion. Both the ocean and Rosh Hashanah are frightening in that there is so much unknown ahead, yet comforting in that they’ll always return you to a place of comfort.

The other reason it felt different was that this year my Nana was here, and my Poppy wasn’t. He passed away in November, and we feel his missing presence each day. We spent our beach service rewriting the prayers to feel more connected to the meaning, singing our favorite melodies, and reflecting on our favorite Poppy memories. We sat at the same beach we always do, used the same siddur, and ate the same foods, but as with any start of something new, there were new feelings amidst the old rituals. I reflected on my feelings of both sadness and happiness that I am feel so emotionally close to my family yet now live halfway across the country in Jackson, Missisippi, while other members of my family reflected on the past year and what they value in our family. We reflected, sat in silence, and sang, in my place of joy.

In this new year, I hope that everyone returns to their place of joy, breathing in the beauty and love as the tide rises, and breathing out the sadness and feelings of negativity as the tide falls.

What was your most meaningful holiday moment this fall?

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