Several thousand people will gather on Sept. 24 on Belle Isle to symbolically cast their sins into the Detroit River in what is most likely the largest observance of tashlich in Michigan.
All across the area, Jews will throw breadcrumbs or pebbles into a body of moving water as cited in Micah 7:19: “And Thou shall cast all their sins in to the depth of the sea.” While some enjoy a large communal gathering, others prefer an intimate observance — and some choose not to participate at all.
“The rules pretty much are go to the water, take a piece of bread, take a minute to reflect and then throw it away,” said Rabbi Dan Horwitz, who heads The Well, an outreach to young Jews, families and intermarried couples. “Beyond that, you can pretty much do what you want. You can do it on your own, if you like, or do it with community.”
The Well is hosting the large tashlich gathering from 2-5 p.m. at the Belle Isle Boat House. Co-presenters are JFamily and NEXTGen Detroit, with partnership from BBYO, B’nai Israel Synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, Congregation B’nai Moshe, Detroit City Moishe House, Detroit Jewish News, Hazon, Hillel Day School, Hillel of Metro Detroit, JCC Repair the World Detroit, Royal Oak Moishe House, Tamarack Camps, Temple Beth El, Temple Israel, Temple Kol Ami, Temple Shir Shalom, and Thread.
“It’s a beautiful ritual and has the ability to be intensely personal,” Horwitz said. “There is also something very special about coming together on a large scale with friends or loved ones who don’t necessarily worship at the same house of worship or any house of worship or are not even Jewish, to symbolically get rid of pieces of ourselves we know we need to work on.”
This is the third year The Well is gathering in Detroit. In 2015, about 500 amassed in Hart Plaza; last year about 1,250 people came to Chene Park; and this year “we’re expecting well north of 2,000 people,” Horwitz said.
Rabbi Jennifer Lader of Temple Israel will be among them.
“A lot of the High Holidays are for individual introspection, how you can make better choices for you and your family,” she said. “This is a communal moment we can all share as we are casting off things we are not proud of and reinventing ourselves. I think it’s better when it’s more people, then we can see everyone has things they want to change for the coming year and see it’s not just them — it’s the entire Jewish community.”
Temple Israel preschoolers ages 2-5 have their own tashlich ceremony at the temple’s on-site pond. “The tiny members get to talk about things like ‘I will try really, really hard to be a good brother’ or ‘I’ll listen to my mother and father,’” Lader said. “It’s the cutest thing in the entire world.”
Joining Forces In Detroit
This year marks the first communal tashlich for Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS), which is gathering with Detroit’s other synagogues, Congregation T’chiyah and Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit —the only synagogue that has held High Holiday services in Detroit continually for the past 18 years — at 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 21 at Milliken State Park along the Detroit RiverWalk.
“We are very excited because our communities wanted to do more together and this seemed like a really nice way to do it,” said Rabbi Ariana Silverman of IADS. “The most meaningful piece for me is that it needs to be done outside. As someone who connects very deeply to the Divine and the outdoors, I like that I am required to go outside for part of my Rosh Hashanah observance and worship — whether or not I am casting my sins.”
Several miles away, 20 to 30 members of the Grosse Pointe Jewish Council will gather at Grosse Pointe Shores Park for a “short but meaningful service” on Lake St. Clair, said Mike Kasky, a lay leader who chairs the Religious Activities Committee.
“It’s a time of replenishment to start off with a clean slate, the casting away of old ideas and mistakes with a resolution in the coming year that we are going to try as hard as we can not to repeat them,” Kasky said. “And we think it’s funny because all these Jewish birds called seagulls swoop down, too.”
Last year, Joanna Abramson invited fellow members of B’nai Israel to her West Bloomfield house on Morris Lake for tashlich.
“We usually do it at a little pond near the synagogue but we decided to come to the lake for a different experience. We went over a little bridge to a little island and threw our bread there,” she said.
This year, the ritual will be held back on the grounds of B’nai Israel, which is more accessible for those who choose not to drive on Shabbat.
Abramson remembers one particularly unusual tashlich she experienced on a river in the northern community of Petoskey.
“There was a salmon ladder and the fish were all coming back in to spawn, literally leaping up the ladder,” she said. “It was an amazing event and allows you to feel you are in partnership with nature.”
Not For Everyone
Not all Jews observe tashlich, considering it a bit of magical thinking that erases transgressions or that it’s become too much of a social event.
“Some rabbis are not thrilled by this custom, particularly the imagery that ‘I am throwing away my sins.’ Many think it is nice symbolism but others feel, ‘Don’t make it feel that easy,’” said Rabbi Louis Finkelman of Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park.
“In my youth, I always went and then at a certain point in my life, I stopped. It is not how I wanted to spend my time and, after I became a rabbi of a synagogue, I was totally exhausted on Rosh Hashanah in the afternoon, so I needed to recover my strength rather than go for a walk someplace.”
Rabbi Jeff Falick of the Birmingham Temple, which observes Humanistic Judaism, said he is not against tashlich but that the ritual “doesn’t speak to me that much.”
Birmingham Temple does a version where little children write down things they regret or would like to change for the coming year and throw them in a kiddie pool.
“It’s nice for kids to physicalize the idea. For adults, we don’t do it as a congregation, though it’s not out of the question that we might in the future. I am not on record as being against it,” said Falick, who added that the term “sin” is not a Humanistic idea. (The Well’s Horwitz said he prefers to say “shortcomings.”)
“We need to own the parts of ourselves that are unfortunate to ourselves and wrestle with those. They can’t be magically cast away. That is not how you deal with a transgression,” Falick said. “It’s a custom I understand has a nice, visceral connection and there is nothing wrong with that, but, as an adult, it doesn’t speak to the idea that I work with the areas I need to.”
The Well used a drone last year to catch some remarkable shots of its tashlich service on the Detroit River. See it at vimeo.com/186208011.
Joyce Wiswell Contributing Writer