Here are 5 places you can pray outdoors this summer
What better place to find the Tree of Life than in nature? And what better spiritual guidebook than a siddur?
A number of congregations in the Greater Los Angeles area take Friday night services outside during the summer — singing nigunim on the sand in Malibu, shul-hopping on bicycles in Venice and picnicking before prayers at public parks. And if you’ve ever wanted to bring your dog to shul, this is probably your best opportunity.
Holding services outdoors has become a popular way for local synagogues to reinvigorate the prayer experience. With services stripped of the formality and physical constraints of a sanctuary, congregants can more vividly experience the wonders of God’s creation — or simply enjoy the Southern California weather in a Jewish context.
“Experiencing God in all the manifestations of nature, we find we are connected with the Creator,” said Cantor Marcelo Gindlin of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, which will meet at Westward Beach every Friday night from July 14 through Sept. 8.
The Friday night services with Gindlin include a live band, and usually more than 100 people attend, bringing picnics, blankets and beach chairs. The cantor begins at around 7, though many arrive earlier to set up and eat. “The dolphins show up when I sing ‘Shalom Aleichem,’ ” Gindlin said.
The Malibu congregation is not alone in taking advantage of the beach. Open Temple practices hitbodedut, a meditative form of prayer, at Venice Beach in August. The proceedings include traditional prayers, contemplative moments, and what Rabbi Lori Shapiro called “sound baths on the beach.” There’s also a gong.
Leonard Atlas, 54, said Open Temple’s outdoor programming is its most authentic.
“Being in nature is the purest form of prayer,” Atlas said. “With the sand under our feet, it feels like we’re in Sinai — but not quite in the desert.”
Open Temple also does a communal bike ride that makes stops at several area synagogues for different parts of the Friday night service. The riders sing nigunim on the road. This year’s Bike Shabbat Shul Crawl will be on July 21.
Other synagogues venture into the wilderness — or at least to the park.
On June 9 and July 14, Valley Outreach Synagogue will hold “Shabbat in the Park” at Oak Canyon Community Park in Agoura Hills. A crowd of 400 to 600 people, along with their pets, create a Hollywood Bowl-style amphitheater effect, says Rabbi Ron Li-Paz.
“No beautiful sanctuary is as beautiful as the sky and the mountains and the trees,” he said.
Li-Paz also heralded the informality of the natural setting for its appeal to interfaith families. “A synagogue might be challenging for some families to walk through the doors, just as a church might be,” he said. The casual, kibbutz-like atmosphere of Shabbat in the Park can be more inviting to non-Jewish family members.
But the appeal of praying outdoors is universal, says Loren Witkin, 50. He and his family have come to Shabbat in the Park for several years. Witkin noticed that his sons, who had had difficulty connecting to Judaism in their early adolescence, enjoyed a more laid-back presentation of the religion.
“The kids — they’re building memories and an experience that will draw them back in,” he said. “It gives you optimism for the future because we know how disengaged [young] people are becoming from their congregations. Seeing all these young people having a good time together reinforces some sense that this is going to continue.”
The spiritual appeal of praying in nature goes beyond the pleasure of a good view. There are actual references to nature in the liturgy, explained Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, a prayer community that meets once a month in Brentwood.
“We sing so many songs about nature [in regular prayers], but you say them inside a building,” Levy said. “The re-creation of each day, and seeing God in the heavens and the sky — to take all those prayers and put them where they were probably written, by someone who was in nature, experiencing the majesty of God in nature … [one can] really feel the power of the words.”
Nashuva holds services at the beach on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and in a Temescal Canyon meadow on the second day. There’s a band, and members are encouraged to bring their own instruments.
“It just feels like nature is waking us up from all the enclosures of our lives,” Levy added.
IKAR holds an outdoor service at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills on the first Friday of each summer month. An abridged Kabbalat Shabbat starting at 6:15 p.m. is preceded by a communal picnic (bring your own), followed by a group discussion led by Rabbi Nate DeGroot that is targeted for a young professional audience.
Convening outdoors eases a lot of the social pressures of praying that are inherent to more conventional settings, said Matthew Weintraub, assistant executive director at IKAR.
“When you walk into a room, it’s easy to look around and see who’s sitting where and who are the people who you know,” Weintraub said. “But when you go outside and people are socializing informally, laughing and connecting, and then going right into a service from [that place of] comfort, it prevents barriers to entry from forming. It doesn’t feel so closed off.”
The bottom line, as it often is in California, is the weather.
“People want to get out and enjoy the summer months and it being light outside for longer,” Weintraub said. “Being able to come in shorts and flip-flops and have a meal and a prayer experience — it just feels different.”