Santa Cruz Jews repent, celebrate amid sand and waves

The ocean roared. The waves crashed. The boats sailed. The seagulls flew. And the Jews prayed.

More than 150 Jews gathered last Friday evening on a Santa Cruz beach for Temple Beth El's annual Shabbat and Selichot services, when Jews ask God for forgiveness before the start of the High Holy Days.

"Water is an important symbol of purification and a vast sea of repentance and prayer. We take this opportunity to experience depth and reality of our prayers and to celebrate creation," said Rabbi Richard Litvak, spiritual leader of the Aptos congregation.

Congregants ate picnic dinners as they sat on blankets and beach chairs. Eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, 2-year-old Jeremy Yanowitz said, "I brought my whole family."

As services began, the sun was a shining golden ball on the horizon. Then the glowing campfire started, and the ocean became louder as larger and larger waves crashed onto the beach. The sky turned a faint pink and in the distance one could see the lights of the Santa Cruz wharf.

"It is a great opportunity for families of all ages to pray as we lie in the sand and look up at the stars," Litvak said. "Listening to the waves, we get a sense of stillness in praying. We also experience here the roots of the Jewish people in tracking across the sand."

The rabbi noted that during the High Holy Days themselves, Jews are often indoors.

"This setting gives us a chance to experience God all around us with the vastness of the ocean," he said. "We feel humility, and as the sun sets we feel the warmth of community around the campfire. The waves, surf and air give us a feeling of cleansing."

Jackie Tuttle of Santa Cruz, who has been a Beth El member for 25 years, said she viewed the service as a great chance to catch up with people after the summer.

"Being out in nature is a good beginning for the holidays," she added. "The ocean noise is so powerful. There is spirituality all over our earth, not just in temple."

Watching children playing ball games, digging in the sand and walking down to the water's edge to take a dip, participant Trudi Stovie of Aptos said the service is perfect for children and adults.

"Children have the freedom to be without restraint here," Stovie said. "This is the best service of the year, and an incredible way to start the High Holidays. It is inspiring to get in contact with what God has given us."

Even the cantor calls this service her favorite.

"I feel we are cleansing ourselves," Cantor Paula Marcus said. "We are anticipating the High Holidays as we are preparing [for] repentance — teshuvah. It is wonderful to be together again after the summer — reuniting and rejuvenating the congregation. The music I plan for this service uses some of the basic prayers. I feel music helps people to turn."

Playing her guitar, Marcus led the congregants in "Shabbat Shalom," followed by "Bim Bom" and "Eili, Eili."

"We pray that these things never end — the sand and the sea," said 8-year-old Kyle Roseman of Santa Cruz. "I like the songs best."

His 10-year-old brother, Ryan, added, "I like being on the beach and roasting marshmallows at the end."

As the darkness settled in, Branwyn Wagman called the service "our best community event" of the year.

"Everyone has a good time," said Wagman, the temple president. "It's a little like going to camp. It is such a different experience to pray in the setting with the rush of waters coming to life."