High Holy Days in the Time of Pandemic

September 17, 2020

The holiest days on the calendar begin Friday, September 18, at sundown. Because of the danger of Covid-19, the observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be unlike anything experienced by Jewish communities over more than three millennia.

Whether at limited outdoor services or on computer screens, participants will not be singing together, shaking hands, embracing, or hearing the actual sounds of the shofar – the ram’s horn – an essential part of the holiday repertoire.

Jewish residents of Bedford, across the broad ideological spectrum, agree that this year the holidays will be missing one important cornerstone: the literal experience of community.

The Chabad Center in Lexington is making the effort with an open-walled tent in the parking lot, where outdoor services are safer, said Joe Siegel. The synagogue website says everyone will be seated with six feet of space around them and masks will be worn at all times.

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The tent can accommodate about 100 people, far from the usual number who fill the building, said Siegel, and he has decided not to be among them for safety’s sake. “Personally, we feel badly about it but I am just going to pray by myself at home.” Traditional Judaism prohibits the use of electronics on the Sabbath and High Holy Days.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, September 20, Siegel said there may be designated areas where he can walk and hear the traditional shofar sounds.

Marina Canner, who with her family has been worshipping at Lexington Chabad, noted that “sometimes people can find even more meaning from praying on their own. They can spend more time on translation, they can really reflect and take time to think.”

“As Jews, we have had much harder obstacles to overcome,” Canner observed. “We have to adapt. Judaism has so much meaning – we just find meaning in different ways.” She pointed to the explosion in online learning opportunities since the pandemic closed synagogues. “We’re still in touch with the community.”

Residents who subscribe to the more liberal branches of Judaism will be able to experience services on the screens of their computers and cellphones, and in some cases may even participate. But everything is virtual.

“Our sanctuary is not huge and we normally have to have two shifts. So there was no way we could socially distance. Our congregation made a decision that nobody goes back in person until everybody goes back in person,” said Bedford resident Rabbi Susan Abramson, now in her 37th year as the spiritual leader of Temple Shalom Emeth in Burlington.

The rabbi said she has become proficient in video technology, including her own YouTube channel, and is pre-recording all of the services for the High Holy Days period. “For the first time ever, I am going to be able to sit back and listen.” The address is https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbv7N6fny5oJJHftEa_Sngw?view_as=subscriber.

Rosh Hashanah will begin with a live presentation on Zoom. “There will be a Rosh Hashanah seder, where I’ll talk about the different foods, and it will be a chance for the community to interact with each other,” she said.

Rabbi Abramson said technology is revolutionizing the worship experience in Reform Judaism. Since the pandemic, attendance at her temple’s services has been way up – on Zoom. “I’m getting an enormous amount of compliments.  I’m doing all kinds of things that I never thought possible,” Abramson said. “But the personal connection is lost. You can’t have it both ways.”

On the first day of Rosh Hashana, besides the pre-recorded adult service, there will be “a very different type of kids’ service,” the rabbi continued. “I wrote a play about the binding of Isaac, and kids in our religious school will be acting out the video.” During the holiday there will be a volunteer sounding the shofar on Zoom, Rabbi Abramson said the children have received plastic models to try to replicate the notes.

She also has recorded a tashlich service, alongside the Concord River at Minute Man National Park. Tashlich involves symbolically throwing one’s sins into a moving body of water.

On Sunday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, seven members of the congregation, ranging in age from 11 to the 60s, will each talk about what the temple means to them, again previously recorded. Special features also have been prepared for Yom Kippur on the 28th. Yom Kippur is a 25-hour fast, and Rabbi Abramson said there will be a community break-the-fast on Zoom after the concluding service.

“Well, at this point we’re used to Zooming, so, unfortunately, it seems like the new norm,” commented Penny Andler, a member of the Conservative synagogue in Lexington, Temple Emunah.

On the High Holy Days, she said, “I will miss greeting everyone — even those I don’t know yet — with the traditional Rosh Hashana greeting, shana tova v’metucha. Also, being physically with the congregation is more special and spiritual to me. I feel that this year will lack some meaning for me.”

Dr. Jeffrey Karen agreed that “the biggest change is that usually you are with family and friends. Going to synagogue, you see people you’ve grown with in the community.”

Temple Emunah will project High Holy Day worship on Zoom as well as live stream, “we’re just going to be watching, and it’s going to be a different experience.”

He acknowledged that there have been some positive community experiences on the Zoom platform since the temple was shut back in March. He and his family especially appreciate the smaller gatherings, including Sabbath dinner with another family using the “breakout rooms” format.

After the Emunah service, he said, “We are going to Zoom with family members and eat dinner together.”

Long-time Emunah member Esther Bass misses the opportunities to recite memorial prayers for departed loved ones in a communal setting. “The whole cycle of the Jewish year has been affected for me,” she lamented.

Bass said she doesn’t enjoy watching services on a computer, but she still picked up her prayer book from a table in the temple vestibule last week. “It’s going to be an interesting experience,” she predicted.

At Temple Isaiah in Lexington, “There has been a lot of creativity going on,” said long-time member Marty Rogers.

His wife Carol is a member of the choir, and live singing is a big red flag of virus spreading.  So Marty recorded her solo on a cellphone, with a taped piano accompaniment in the background, then sent the file for mixing with other voices. The project is expected to be a musical and technical success.

One special Yom Kippur feature that Rogers said he will miss is the annual reading from a Torah scroll that was once used by the community of Kolin, now in the Czech Republic, The 500-year-old community was liquidated during World Warr II, but the scroll was salvaged after the war and along with others loaned to congregations around the world.

Rogers said the scroll is carried around the sanctuary on Yom Kippur, and used for the holiday reading.

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