In normal years, High Holy Days services hosted by Mishkan Chicago, an inclusive Jewish community based on the city’s North Side, sell out the 1,200-seat Vic Theatre.
Since the novel coronavirus put an end to in-person gatherings, the community has gotten by with virtual meeting platforms and Facebook, but its leadership knew group chats or glitchy Zoom boxes would be no replacement for the Vic.
But, even if it were not against state guidelines, gathering hundreds of people in an enclosed space like a theater for hours of chanting and singing is also the surest way, experts say, to spread the virus.
The Days of Awe, the 10-day stretch beginning with Rosh Hashana and ending on Yom Kippur, are filled with sung prayer and choral pieces, including the haunting “Kol Nidrei,” sung on the evening before Yom Kippur, which falls this year on Monday (Sept. 28).
“For so many people, music is the most uplifting and important piece of religious experience,” said Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann.
So for the first time since the pandemic began, Mishkan Chicago brought in a professional video company to prerecord its holiday services, augmented with guest speakers such as a local non-denominational Christian pastor and Casper ter Kuile, a co-founder of the liturgical think tank Sacred Design Lab who teaches ministry innovation at Harvard Divinity School.
The community’s davening, or prayer, team masked up in a “big, beautiful, lush, green backyard” for three days, meanwhile, recording all the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur songs and prayers.
Heydemann said she expects the resulting recorded celebration, dubbed #GetHigherAtHome, to draw about 3,500 people virtually.
Not every synagogue will (or can) go as all-out as Mishkan Chicago, but most will make do and even reap some gains in a year when “everything is virtual and most everything is different,” in the words of Rabbi Beth Janus, a Reform rabbi who volunteers at Dorshei Derekh (“Seekers of the Path”), a Reconstructionist Jewish community in Philadelphia.
Dorshei Derekh is experimenting with an app that will allow it to record about eight voices, and perhaps a viola, which will be played during virtual Yom Kippur services so congregants at home can sing along, especially to the liturgical poem, V’al Kulam. Janus expects the congregation, which usually gathers about 60 people online for Saturday shabbat services, to likely have more attendees during the holidays.
But Janus is also concerned with what her congregants are doing at home to make Zoom services special. She is encouraging them to create an "altar" by laying a cloth over the spot where they place their computer. She suggests positioning flowers or a piece of art that can be seen on screen as they participate.
Yom Kippur presents something of a greater challenge in COVID times than Rosh Hashana, celebrated on Sept. 19 this year. With its theme of atonement, Yom Kippur is more introspective and somber. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, traditionally a time for thanking God for life's blessings, can be more readily celebrated outdoors — often with blasts from a ritual ram's horn called a shofar.
In Los Angeles on Sunday (Sept. 20), the second day of the Jewish year 5781, shofar blowers from synagogues across Los Angeles participated in an hour-long “Shofar Wave," organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The wave began at 3 p.m. in Pasadena and ended just before 4 p.m. in Thousand Oaks.
Rabbi Jason Rosner, of Temple Beth Israel Highland Park and Eagle Rock, who blasted his shofar from the front yard of his Pasadena home on Sunday, told Religion News Service, “We're trying to create as much of the ritual as we can.”
Rosner's volunteers and staff assembled High Holy Day kits for their congregants that included honey cakes, memorial candles and instructions for performing Tashlich, when congregants throw bread crumbs into running water to symbolize the sins they are casting away.
Janus' Philadelphia congregation also used the blowing of the shofar as a way to jointly mark the holiday. “Because we happen to be in a part of Philadelphia that’s pretty dense,” she said of Dorshei Derekh's Mount Airy neighborhood, the members of the community were encouraged to go out on their porches to blow the shofar at the same time. “It’s a great way to connect with our non-Jewish neighbors, making it more public than we normally are in our celebration,” she said.
Janus also asked Dorshei Derekh's families to take turns gathering in a socially distant way outside the sanctuary to have their picture taken with the Torah scroll they usually would touch and read from on Yom Kippur. “During the major prayer of Yom Kippur that evening — called Kol Nidre — we’ll have a slideshow of all of us holding the Torah,” said Janus.
Mishkan Chicago is also making an effort to bring its congregants together, hosting small in-person events, including a drive-in sing-along and shofar popups across the Chicago area. Some in the community participated in clergy-led marches for racial equality over the summer in the city, but for many, these events are the first time they’ve been together since the pandemic began.
“I think people are really thirsty for connection, community, meaning, purpose, inspiration, hope — you know, the kinds of things that are the business of religions to provide,” said Heydemann.
Some of that sense of hope will come these High Holy Days simply in carrying on in whatever ways are available.
“The Jewish story is a story of unlikely survival in the face of forces that would have extinguished us many times over the course of history, but did not,” she said. “And so to tell our own story through the lens of persistence and commitment to values and tradition; that actually is a hugely bolstering message.”