“Escape the horn honking for some horn blowing,” reads a flyer advertising Shofar in the Park. In a modern twist on the time-honored Chabad mission of making the heart of Rosh Hashanah easily accessible, outdoor shofar blowings are expected to reach thousands this year. With the Covid pandemic dragging on into its second High Holiday season, demand for shofar blowings in a safe, outdoor setting is higher than ever.
Initially the brainchild of Rabbi Yisrael and Chanchy Kugel, the co-directors of Chabad Young Professionals on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “Shofar in the Park” has been replicated hundreds of times the world over. In 2010, Chanchy Kugel saw the potential of a dedicated shofar service for Jews not attending a full Rosh Hashanah service. So the newly minted Chabad emissaries held a shofar blowing event at a nearby hotel, after services at their synagogue. “It was a beautiful event, and as we left the hotel, I looked down the street, and my eyes landed on picturesque Central Park,” Rabbi Kugel remembers. Turning to his wife, he made a mental note to hold next year’s shofar blowing surrounded by the beauty of nature.
That first Rosh Hashanah in the park brought out a crowd of four hundred eager participants. Haim Avitzur, an acclaimed trombonist and professor of music, sets aside his musical sophistication when he blows the shofar for the public each year at the Shofar in the Park ceremony. The shofar’s call traditionally symbolizes the simple voice of our inner innocence, and Rabbi Kugel says Mr. Avitzur is the perfect choice to communicate that message. “We chose him to illustrate that even the most professional musician must strike a more raw, unsophisticated note at least once a year.”
Each year, attendance has grown, but Covid has changed the game completely. With the pandemic and associated restrictions making attending in-person services harder than ever, numbers at outdoor events have boomed. Over a thousand people passed through the Norman Landscape in Central Park to hear the shofar last year and Rabbi Kugel expects similar numbers this year. In keeping with Covid precautions, the shofar will be sounded every twenty minutes over a two-hour period from 4 pm to 6 pm to maximize social distancing.
The idea of holding an abbreviated service in the outdoors has spread like wildfire across the globe, and Rabbi Kugel has been happy to share his formula with fellow Chabad emissaries. Thousands of similar events will take place across Baltimore, Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, Madison, Los Angeles, and countless other cities and towns worldwide. Many attendees report that the combination of the meaningful mitzvah and the natural setting makes for an experience that sticks, and may mark the beginning of a broader engagement with their Judaism.
High Holiday events in the style of Shofar in the Park have proven especially attractive to Jewish millennials, only 24 percent of whom report attending synagogue annually. Rabbi Kugel emphasizes that the abbreviated services are in no way meant to replace complete traditional services; but Chabad Rabbis like Kugel are bringing the High Holiday traditions to young people wherever they stand. Shofar in the Park offers the cornerstone Jewish observance to those who won’t otherwise get to experience shofar.