Orthodox rabbi to host ‘alternative Yom Kippur’ service in beer garden

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish year, may not seem the sort of holiday to observe in a beer garden.

But more than 100 Washington-area Jews are doing just that this year, taking a holiday that calls for introspection, fasting and intense prayer — to a bar.

Aaron Potek, rabbi of a 20- and 30-somethings Jewish group called GatherDC, thinks it’s a fitting setting for a Yom Kippur service. For about two hours Yom Kippur morning Saturday (Sept. 30), Potek and former first lady Michelle Obama speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz will co-host an “alternative Yom Kippur” service at Sauf Haus Bier Hall and Garten in Washington’s hip Dupont Circle neighborhood.

Sarah Hurwitz and Aaron Potek at the Beyond the Tent Retreat in July 2016 at Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland. Photo courtesy of Josh Orozco

Surprising as it might sound, a Yom Kippur service in a beer garden actually builds upon rabbinic tradition, according to Potek, an Orthodox rabbi. The Bible refers to the holiday in plural as “Yom Kippurim,” which can be read in Hebrew as “like Purim.”

Purim is the holiday that draws upon the Book of Esther, and some consider it a sort of Jewish Halloween — a time to dress up and get a little silly while listening to the story of the triumph of the Jews over their oppressor.

The GatherDC service, for which at least 110 people have already paid the $18 ticket fee, will borrow from Purim’s topsy-turvy spirit. “Let’s channel that on Yom Kippur, too,” Potek said. “Yom Kippur in a bar — what’s more upside-down than that? By shaking things up, we might surprise ourselves and discover something new.”

Shaking things up is necessary, because fasting and prayer have been overemphasized on Yom Kippur, said Potek, who received rabbinic ordination from the New York-based Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. The envelope-pushing Orthodox rabbinical school has come under criticism from more traditional quarters of Orthodox Judaism, which takes Jewish law more literally than Reform, Conservative and other streams of Judaism.

Fasting and prayer can distract from the spirit of the day, during which Jews are supposed to question whether they are living the lives they ought to be, according to Potek, who said that many synagogue attendees don’t understand the Yom Kippur services.

“Will you find a personally meaningful answer at a beer garden?” Potek asked in a recent blog post.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” he wrote. “But, if…

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