The Hamptons, towards the eastern tip of New York’sLong Island, are considered to be the summer playground for the rich and famous. From May to September these towns are full to bursting as people come in for a visit to see a truly beautiful part of the country, with beaches that are among the best in the world. Who would have thought that this would be a place to learn about spirituality in the Jewish community?
Every Friday evening during the summer, the beach in East Hampton is taken over by the Jewish Center of the Hamptons (the main local Synagogue), as Shabbat is welcomed, against a backdrop of sun, sea and sand. The community which comes together to celebrate the start of Shabbat is a mix of young and old, with some children still in swimming costumes, after a day at the beach, while others are dressed up ready for the family dinner afterwards. But at 6pm on a Friday these people come together with a shared purpose to welcome Shabbat.
Together Rabbi Zimmerman and Cantor Stein (the leaders of the community) stand atop the beach’s pavilion (in potentially inclement weather), looking out over a congregation spread out across the sand, with the Atlantic Ocean providing a stunning backdrop. Prayers are recited and songs are sung. During some of the songs the children will join in with instruments distributed from the bimah cum pavilion. During others the children feel so moved by the prayers and song that they join in with their words and their bodies, dancing while they sing. And at some points the children are invited up to join the Cantor on the pavilion leading the community in song.
For many of the families present, a weekend in the Hamptons would not be complete without Shabbat on the beach to begin proceedings. Some families stay after the service for a mitzvah project set up by the Synagogue. And as the families depart, the youngest children all receive a Jewish book as a gift from the Synagogue (sponsored by a number of generous congregants) so that their Jewish learning can continue once they are back home with their families. And for those people who prefer their Shabbats to be sand-free, there is a later service back in the Synagogue, which follows a more traditional structure.
Anyone who has been on a summer camp with one of our wonderful Zionist youth movements will know that a service conducted outside, adds a different dimension to the prayers, and allows a new connection to the words and even to God. The Kabbalists of Tsafat knew this when they would begin their Shabbat in the hills surrounding the city. They would escort the Sabbath bride back to their community as they recited the Psalms which now comprise our Kabbalat Shabbat service.
Now I realise that most of our communities in Britain do not have an appropriate beach close to hand for conducting Shabbat services (except maybe Brighton and Bournemouth). But we do all have access to a variety of beautiful natural spaces, and even in some cases Synagogue gardens. And yes I have not been away for so long as to forget that we do frequently experience summer showers, but even in East Hampton there are contingency plans for rain.
And the Jewish Center of the Hamptons is not the only American community conducting services outside; not all of them have the luxury of beautiful sandy beaches, but many of them find creative spaces to conduct summer services outside.
For the younger members of the community, Shabbat on the beach shows them how Judaism can be fun and engaging. For the families the service provides an opportunity for children, parents and grandparents to pray together in a way which is attractive to all generations. And for the wider community it is a chance to see that their Synagogue is a vibrant part of life in East Hampton.
The beach is great for sunbathing and swimming, but in East Hampton I discovered that the beach is also great for praying and for building Jewish community; all you have to do is remember your hat, water bottle and sun cream.