Rabbi Evan Schultz told congregants of Congregation B'nai Israel that he wouldn't be offended if they were distracted during the Rosh Hashana service Wednesday evening on Fairfield's shoreline.
That's because he presided over the first-ever sunset service of the Jewish High Holiday to welcome the New Year on Jennings Beach and knew people would be attracted by the waterfront setting. He imagined the Israelites might have experienced such a setting "minus the ocean."
Schultz said the service transformed the space into a holy one for an hour as they mixed "day into night and the New Year with the past year."
The holiday marked the start of the Jewish New Year, 5774.
"This setting is absolutely beautiful. It's a beautiful resource in Fairfield. This gave us the opportunity to use a beautiful setting to try something new and to allow families to come, let their kids run free and play in the sand and have a spiritual experience for themselves," Schultz said.
Rabbi James Prosnit of Fairfield, the spiritual leader of the congregation, which is part of the Reform Judaism movement, said the beach service was meant to take advantage of a beautiful summer evening so that congregants of all ages could enjoy an informal spiritual gathering "as an alternative to our more traditional service at the temple."
The traditional service was not eliminated. Prosnit led at that one at the synagogue in Bridgeport about an hour after the sunset service.
"Ours is a diverse and intergenerational congregation," Prosnit said. The two services allowed for a casual, natural setting for some congregants as well as the sanctity of the sanctuary for others. The beach service was planned in response to the diversity of the community's needs, he said.
"We wanted to try to be creative," said Schultz, the assistant rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel.
The Jewish holy days this year are taking place earlier than they often do. In fact, Hanukah, which generally coincides with Christmas, will fall on Thanksgiving weekend this year.
"We sensed that people were still in summer mode. This was an opportunity to welcome the New Year in a natural environment with a relaxed, informal but spiritually connected community," Prosnit said, adding that he thought this idea would resonate with his congregants "and I think it has."
No official numbers were available but there were more than 200 people at the sunset service.
Bob Sherman of Stratford said the setting was "closer to nature and by extension it's closer to God." His wife Sandy Sherman called it a very spiritual setting: "The sand, the water, the origins of life, of our lives. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and here we are. Every day is a new beginning and this is a wonderful beginning to the New Year," she said.
Jeff and Sarah Alper of Fairfield brought their young children to the outdoor service. "It extends the summer a few extra days. It's nice that the kids can be with us for the holiday," Sarah Alper said.
Schultz said it's usually difficult to get people to sit up front at synagogue, but people came early to claim a spot on the beach. "People set their chairs up right at the front. I took that as the best compliment," Schultz said.
Ian Konigsberg, 13, of Fairfield, was one of those in the first row. "I think it's a great idea. It's such a nice view. It's just amazing. We're getting a front row seat to watch the New Year happening," Ian said.
"It's a very special time. It's marking a new year. The sun is like the New Year's ball dropping," said Michelle Monte, 13, of Fairfield.