Jewish New Year Outside: Nature as a Vessel for Spirituality

Tzimtzum Collective, an innovative Santa Cruz Jewish organization collaborates with The Greenhouse Project to bring Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, outdoors.

By Naomi Friedland

Sept. 4, 2023—At the end of summer, many of us are not counting down to the new year quite yet. However, in the Jewish calendar, the transition to fall marks the beginning of the year.

Similar to the winter holiday season for many Americans, these upcoming few weeks are the most celebratory and reflective days of the year in the Jewish tradition. The two High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, mark the start and end of the roughly two-week period.

Tzimtzum Collective, an up-and-coming Santa Cruz queer Jewish collective, is hosting its first High Holiday programming beginning on Sept. 16 and running through Sept. 25. While most Jewish communities observe the new year by attending indoor synagogue services, Chel Mandel, the founder of the collective, believes that being fully immersed in nature, away from the distractions of everyday modern life, is vital for a transformative and restorative experience.

'Curating a container is just as important as what is in the container.'

Mandell found what they believe to be the perfect location for Tzimtzum’s High Holiday program at The Greenhouse Project, created by recent UC Santa Cruz Environmental Art and Social Practice graduates, Dav Bell and L Gilbert on UC Santa Cruz’s farm located at the base of campus. At the center of the roughly circular garden oasis is a stage built of wooden panels with gaps to let in sunlight. Facing the platform is a garden filled with California native plants.

“The structure itself is meant to open to the space so it can act as a stage, but also the garden can act as a stage,” Bell says.

The Greenhouse Project started as a thesis project and will continue to grow in coming  years as an educational space focused on art, food, and climate justice. While interning at the farm, Bell and Gilbert decided that it was the ideal location to build upon their vision.

“The farm is a threshold of a space between the university and the public,” says Bell, who stresses the importance of bringing in people and knowledge beyond the university.

Bell and Gilbert started building the community space in December 2022 and began hosting events in May, inviting cutting-edge artists and environmental experts to share their work and wisdom with an audience beyond just students. Tzimtzum’s High Holiday event is the first time Bell and Gilbert are not curating a program themselves for The Greenhouse Project, but allowing an outside group to take over the space for a few weeks.

Prior to attending rabbinical school, Mandell earned an MFA in interdisciplinary art and shares the same background as Bell and Gilbert in creating community environments as an art form. For Mandell, the physical environment of Tzimtzum’s High Holiday service is just as important as the songs, prayers, and activities that make up the service itself.

“One of the ways to tap into divine experience is through our senses and our body,” says Mandell. “When we activate that, we can open ourselves energetically. In nature, our nervous system relaxes and when we relax we can feel.” Whether someone is Jewish, spiritually inclined, or neither, many can relate to spending time in nature to calm oneself and connect more deeply with their inner world.

A Sacred World

The Tzimtzum Collective prioritizes connecting to ancient Jewish traditions while simultaneously expanding upon them to fit contemporary society.

“Meet the divine one in the field of tall grasses” is a famous quote passed down by generations of rabbis that’s central to Tzimtzum’s interpretation of the New Year celebration. 

Historically, Jewish people were agriculturalists and their holidays follow changes in the natural world including moon phases and crop cycles. Mandell emphasizes Judaism’s inherent connection to the land and the importance of utilizing human connection to nature as a source of spirituality, well-being, and community building.

“Of course, Santa Cruz County isn’t our own land,” Mandell says. While Santa Cruz is not where their  roots reside, they encourage participants to connect to the soil they stand on to center themselves in preparation for a new year. 

Rosh Hashanah services are on Sept. 16 from 11-12:30 PM followed by a community picnic from 12:30-2 PM. On Sept. 25th Tzimtzum will celebrate a Yom Kippur service from 10:30-12:15 PM. Erev Rabbi Chell Mandell will lead the services and Reed Love, founder of We are Stardust, will guide participants in song.

Interested in attending the Tzimtzum Collective Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services? Fill out this Google Form to RSVP.

Follow The Greenhouse Project on Instagram to learn more about their work and be in the loop for future events.