In less than two weeks, the High Holidays will arrive in the midst of this unprecedented pandemic. While it may be a challenge to engage worshippers, it’s not impossible. This past month, clergy across Judaism’s denominations shared their thoughts on recreating a High Holiday experience without people in the pews.
All were confident about conveying the importance of repentance and beginning anew during a pandemic. And all agreed that worship would look different. The shofar, for example, will be heard in new, socially distanced ways. Some shofar-blowers are placing a mask at the end of the ram’s horn to comply with guidelines on containing the spread of the coronavirus. Many congregations will use technology to live-stream services. And other more traditional synagogues will socially distance and break into smaller groups to pray safely.
Rabbi Marc Baker, president and chief executive officer of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, noted that he is “inspired by the ways our clergy is working day and night to hold their communities and our whole community on their shoulders—spiritually and emotionally.” The work of celebrating the holidays this year is a radical reimagining of services and the observances that American Jews have dearly held for over 350 years.
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, president of the pluralistic Hebrew College, wrote in an email exchange that there is “an overall awareness of what we are missing this year, including community-wide celebrations.” She continued: “At the same time, we are approaching the holidays this year with a heightened sense of vulnerability that is profoundly appropriate for these Days of Awe. We are more aware than ever of the fragility of our lives. We are more aware than ever of the fragmentation of our society, the fray and fraying relationships that are calling out for repair.”
As for the logistics of “coming together alone” for services, there’s a divide between those congregations that utilize technology and those congregations that will not. Rabbi Adir Posy, director of the Orthodox Union’s synagogue and community services department, noted that his umbrella organization offers a set of guidelines about general best practices for member synagogues. He noted that the restrictions on using electricity on Shabbat and holidays rule out the use of digital technology during the holidays.
“When you think about what synagogues will look like in a pandemic, we have to take into account variability of different locations, but in the vast majority of communities, some level of interpersonal gathering is permitted,” Posy said. “Sometimes it needs to be outdoors, and sometimes it needs to be indoors. We are working with communities to make sure they’re able to modify any of the elements of the classic service that are not in keeping with appropriate health protocols. We are balancing the need to have inspirational prayer experiences with the concept of the sanctity of human life and the importance of help.”
CJP has provided $170,000 in grants to 75 area synagogues for those congregations using technology to live-stream services. The goal is to improve technology for the recipients so these synagogues can “provide vibrant, engaging, meaningful remote holiday experiences and distance Jewish learning.”
Since the pandemic began, Conservative synagogues have used technology in accordance with the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to bring services to members’ homes. Boston-area Conservative congregations will continue to connect digitally for the High Holidays.
Rabbi Carl Perkins, spiritual leader of Temple Aliyah in Needham, said his temple will hold services featuring traditional liturgy that offer members opportunities to pray, learn Torah and consider the themes of the High Holidays. “Things will be different, but they will be comparable in purpose and intent,” he said in an email. “Our goal will be identical to that of any other year: to provide people with the opportunity, the environment and the encouragement to engage in teshuvah (repentance).”
Rabbi Leora Kaye, director of programs for the Union for Reform Judaism, observed that many Reform congregations have responded to “this loneliness, to this disembodiment, to feelings that people are having. It has pushed us to think radically and wildly in new directions. We’re aiming to place a foundation underneath so much of this fragility.”
To that end, Kaye was one of the movers behind the URJ Reflection Project. Funded by a gift from the Righteous Persons Foundation, the project synthesized material from months of conversations between URJ leadership and congregational leaders and members on what the High Holidays will mean in a pandemic.
Working with two design teams, the URJ identified three “signature experiences” to focus on during this unusual year. They include “The Spiritual,” which encourages people to take stock of “their inner core”; “The Setting,” which enables people who won’t be gathering together “to make their High Holidays community their own”; and “The Memorial,” which allows congregants to honor and mourn the losses that have occurred in the pandemic, and “reflect on how [these losses] will change the way [we] live moving forward.”
Rabbi Elaine Zecher, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, builds on the principles of the URJ Reflection Project for her congregation. Zecher and others at Temple Israel have been exploring individual and communal experiences as her congregation uses technology to bring Shabbat and other holiday experiences to members. “At Temple Israel, we always start with asking the why of something,” she explained. “Why do we do the holidays? What is the purpose of the High Holidays? The way of the High Holidays is about the strength of our inner lives, the nurturing of our inner lives and the recognition that as imperfect human beings, the holidays allow us to come back to a place where we can make what is wrong right.”
Zecher pointed out that her congregants will encounter the High Holidays through live-streaming and mobile apps. Temple Israel will also present distinct pathways to celebrate the holidays: a self-guided exploration, which begins in the contemplative month of Elul, and gathering various communities with like-minded interests. Some of these groups will include families or people who want a more contemporary experience with music. Then there are people “who are more aligned with the majestic experience of the High Holidays,” Zecher noted. In that scenario, services will be live, and clergy will be on the bima with the cantor on one side behind glass and the rabbi socially distanced behind another piece of glass. “We want to be present with the congregation and model what it means to be safe, even with each other in the same room,” Zecher said.
Along with CJP, some congregations plan to distribute High Holiday items to enhance people’s celebrations at home. Temple Israel of Natick plans to send congregants gift bags that will enable them to have Rosh Hashanah seders built around different foods. Rabbi Daniel Liben, the temple’s senior rabbi, said his members will receive gift bags “that will bring a little bit of us to them. We plan to send two or three things they will need for a Rosh Hashanah seder so it will give them the impetus to do it.”
Similarly, CJP has created a “Rosh Hashanah in a Box,” which includes a jar of honey and a honey dipper, dried apple rings and two blank postcards that people can use to send holiday wishes to family and friends. Through its partners, CJP is also identifying people experiencing food insecurity and providing holiday meals.
Clergy across the board are certain that Jews will continue to be resilient, optimistic and invested in their worship in this pandemic year. As for the 5781/2020 High Holidays, Perkins noted, “Our hope is that the virtual will also be virtuous.” Added Baker: “Some of the ways we have adapted, whether it be Zoom shivas or Zoom services, have created profound and memorable moments of human connection. [These services] have opened the doors metaphorically to synagogue life for many who were not previously engaged.”