Decked out in brown suede Nikes, distressed denim jeans and black Ray-Ban sunglasses, Rabbi Dan Ain stood atop a “kosher” soapbox in Washington Square Park Monday afternoon, extolling heresy and encouraging his listeners to break from tradition during these 10 days of awe and repentance.
“You guys didn’t expect a rabbi to stand up and talk in Washington Square Park,” he said.
At a first glance, most passers-by thought they were about to hear yet another testifying Evangelical minister. But Rabbi Ain, 32, sported a blue button-down bowling shirt with a bright yellow “Rabbi Dan” nametag embroidered above the pocket and a swooping New Shul logo silk-screened across the back.
Throughout this week, he has been delivering short soapbox talks just south of the Washington Arch, to discuss how we can reconnect with our thoughts and reinvent our spiritual selves during the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Meanwhile, the New Shul is hosting a nearby House of Awe and Repentance Café, with a variety of interactive multimedia displays, creative modes of repentance and a wine-coffee bar tended by Rabbi Ain himself.
Rabbi Ain also discussed how he was dismissed from the Conservative movement’s rabbinical group after taking this position at the avant-garde, Greenwich Village congregation.
“I was kicked out of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement for taking a job at The New Shul,” he shouted. “When I appeared before a dozen or so rabbis, they said to me, ‘How can you be a rabbi at a creative and artistic shul like The New Shul?’”
A couple blocks away on East Eighth Street, The House of Awe and Repentance Café occupies an otherwise vacant storefront that the landlord is letting the New Shul use rent-free for a week. Inside stands a bar offering free candy, tea and water, and behind the bar is a “Needing to Tell” bulletin board designed by artist Karen Shasha, where visitors can tack on their own stories of remorse and forgiveness. On opening day, hundreds of visitors wandered in and out of the café, according to Holly Gewandter, co-founder of The New Shul and the architect of this project.
“People keep coming in here and saying, ‘What is this? You’re trying to raise money?’ Everyone assumes you have an ulterior motive,” Gewandter said, laughing.
For Gewandter, however, the motives behind the exhibit were purely spiritual — her attempt to revive the tradition of deep contemplation and spiritual experience during the days of awe, a practice that has always been vital to her family.
“It’s one of these things that has fallen away,” she said. “I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that you can only ask forgiveness of the person you’ve wronged.”
The most prominent exhibit at the café is undoubtedly the Regret-O-Rama, a cross between a carnival hut and a curtain-drawn wooden confessional booth, topped with a roof of colorful kipot. Behind the privacy of the curtains, visitors can sit down at an iMac and send “I’m Sorry” e-mails to anyone whose forgiveness they seek, using a program created by synagogue member Elliot Philips, a senior at Poly Prep high school in Brooklyn. Thus far, the Regret-O-Rama has caused no controversy despite its resemblance to a Catholic confessional booth, affirmed Gewandter, who envisioned the idea and commissioned her daughter Haley to design it.
“We’re finding ways to make Judaism relevant and not relying on structures that were created a long time ago to be the only access points to spiritual practices,” Gewandter said.
The House of Awe and Repentance Café is located at 13 E. 8th St. and will be open from noon to 8 p.m. through Saturday, Sept. 26.
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