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Not Quite Back to Normal

As the pandemic evolves, synagogues scramble to adjust their High Holiday services to accommodate shifting risks and expectations

Paula Jacobs
August 23, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Hazan David Lipp had been looking forward to hearing the voices of his congregants at this year’s High Holiday services. Last year, during the pandemic, his congregants attended shul virtually—from home, on mute—while he sang to an empty sanctuary. The choir at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, the 420-family Conservative synagogue in Louisville, Kentucky, where Lipp is cantor, was also hoping to perform before a live audience; last year they prerecorded a video for services, but this year they had masks custom designed for singing, which they planned to use as part of their return to in-person services. For months, the synagogue’s clergy, staff, and lay leaders had been conducting online video calls with a panel of physicians to determine how to reopen safely.

But it was not to be. Congregants such as Elaine and Bruce Tasch, who had been looking forward to reconnecting in person with their Louisville synagogue friends, received this letter on Aug. 4.

It is with a heavy heart that we make the following announcement ... AJ High Holy Day Services will not take place in-person, and will be held virtually beginning on Monday, September 6 at 7:00 p.m … All Youth and Family High Holy Day Services including the outdoor youth service planned at AJ on Monday, September 6, the outdoor Tashlich service planned at Big Rock on Tuesday, September 7, and the Yom Kippur Children’s Service have been canceled. AJ will be providing updated virtual Children’s and Family services on both days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur.
The cancellation of in-person High Holy Day services naturally breaks our hearts. We have been looking forward to returning to our building for services this year. However, the safety of our members, staff, and guests takes priority over everything else. All of our trusted-frontline physicians have unanimously advocated that we take these steps.

“As a group we looked at the effect that Delta is having in the Louisville community and in order to keep the congregation safe, we decided to suspend in-person services,” said Dr. Jon Klein, vice dean for research at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, who serves on the shul’s medical panel and Louisville’s COVID-19 task force, which regularly tracks the virus. During the week prior to the decision—and despite a relatively high vaccination rate in Louisville—the number of cases in the metro area had risen 57%, including an increased number of pediatric cases, with a 111% increase in hospital admissions, also including younger patients.

Across the U.S., synagogues have been preparing for a post-pandemic transition and return to normalcy. But a safe back-to-shul reentry requires painstaking attention to infinite logistical details while balancing ritual traditions with best practices for public health. So while services this year won’t be exactly like last year’s services, this year’s High Holidays will not be like the old days. Preregistration, social distancing, and a livestreaming option will be the norm—as are expectations that it might be necessary to quickly shift gears at the last minute as COVID-19 variants spike.

After months of being apart, congregants are seeking renewal and connection. Instead, they may be disappointed when services go virtual or familiar traditions are modified.

“You can’t plan everything in life,” advised Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel Congregation, a modern Orthodox synagogue in downtown Baltimore—the oldest continuously active Orthodox congregation in Maryland, operating since 1873. “Stay focused on what is really important and essential to our lives and traditions … While it is hard to pivot, it will help root us and we will be grounded during the High Holiday services. We need to focus our energies on praying for health and happiness for our loved ones and communities.”

Given the evolving virus dynamics, B’nai Israel is ready with contingency plans, using last year’s model that had shifted services outside, eliminating the sermon, singing, and other traditional elements. They will finalize plans a week or two before Rosh Hashanah.

Flexibility and adaptability are key, said Aaron Melman, head rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Northbrook, Illinois. “Closing was a much easier decision to make than reopening and determining how to reopen. Closing, we just shut down and went online.”

To accommodate its approximate 1,100 families safely (no guest tickets this year), the customary four-hour Rosh Hashanah and five-hour Yom Kippur morning services will be held in two consecutive two-hour shifts. Because of capacity limitations and to enable contact-tracing, members must preregister for their in-person time slot choice. Pre-pandemic, the synagogue (including the sanctuary and two social halls) typically seated 2,000 for the High Holidays; this year, capacity will be reduced by 50% both in the synagogue building and at the multigenerational service held in a local junior high school. Given time constraints, Torah processions will be eliminated and the sermon will be briefer. The clergy, president, and Torah readers will sit on the bimah, and those receiving aliyot can come up to the Torah or recite the blessings at the base of the bimah. Masks are required for everyone. Livestreaming will also be available for members.

High Holidays at Chabad of Sudbury, Massachusetts
High Holidays at Chabad of Sudbury, MassachusettsCourtesy Chabad of Sudbury

In Indianapolis, Congregation Beth-El Zedeck—a 750-family congregation dually affiliated with the Reconstructionist and Conservative movements—is also requiring preregistration for in-person and livestreamed* High Holiday services. To enable social distancing, each member may choose three in-person services over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; because of the surge of the Delta virus variant, capacity in the 1,500-seat sanctuary will be reduced far below the 600 seats originally contemplated a couple of months ago. “We are attentive to the situation and prepared to adjust,” said Senior Rabbi Dennis Sasso. “The health of our community is of preeminent concern.”

Services will be abbreviated and there will be no assigned seats. Congregants and clergy in attendance will be masked, and will be expected to be vaccinated unless valid considerations require otherwise. Except for the clergy, all bimah traffic will be eliminated. The cantor will be the sole Torah reader, and in-person aliyot will be recited from a stand at the base of the bimah. Shofar blowing will be abbreviated and muffled by a face mask. There will be no lengthy Torah processions honoring synagogue volunteers or children blowing shofars at the conclusion of the Neilah service.

B’nai Jeshurun, an 1,800-unit nonaffiliated synagogue in Manhattan, announced its latest plans in a letter to members on Aug. 18: BJ still plans to come together as a kahal (congregation)—in person for members, and virtually for members and friends. But capacity in each service will be reduced to 70% to allow for social distancing between households. (If things change for the worse, it may be necessary to further adjust this number.) Indoor services will be for vaccinated members only, requiring proof of vaccination in order to attend; masks will be required; all service leaders will be tested. Given the risk of the Delta variant for children, unvaccinated children may not attend indoor services this year. All family and early childhood services will be outdoors and live streamed; in the event of rain, these will be held virtually. There are also tentative plans to provide an opportunity for members to register to view the service outdoors on 88th Street.

“5781 has been a year like no other,” concludes the letter, signed by BJ Rabbis Roly Matalon, Felicia Sol, and Rebecca Weintraub. “Our community has come together in ways large and small to support each other. We have drawn strength from the bonds that unite us, even as we have faced significant challenges. It is a loss to not be able to gather in full. But we could not be more proud and honored to lead this remarkable community, and we look forward to the introspection and spiritual growth that this time of year demands of us. Regardless of where we all are, we will join and pray as one.”

As always, Temple Beth Am, a 900-plus-family Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, will offer multiple services. Those showing proof of vaccination (and wearing masks, per LA regulation) may attend sanctuary services. Lay-led, family, and alternative services will be held outdoors and on the rooftop—a logistical challenge that Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny said was possible because of the teamwork of professional staff and lay-leaders, as well as the large outdoor campus. “We want kids on campus to experience the High Holidays.”

Safely accommodating unvaccinated children is a major challenge. Solutions range from virtual services at Adath Jeshurun to indoor classrooms at Beth-El Zedek, to outdoor children’s services at Temple Shalom in Dallas and at Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Congregation, where masked children (per Baltimore’s mask mandate) will attend services and programs in outdoor pop-up tents.

Further complicating matters are conflicting national and state guidelines, especially in states with relatively low vaccination rates and rising COVID-19 cases, and executive orders against mandatory masking and vaccination. Synagogues in such locations told Tablet that they believe most of their congregants are vaccinated, and they will base reentry decisions on CDC and local health guidance. (According to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, at 85%, Jews have the highest vaccine acceptance rate of any U.S. faith group.)

Cantor Bryce Megdal and Senior Rabbi Steven Engel plan to prioritize health and safety in finalizing High Holiday decisions. At the end of July, due to the recent spike in COVID Delta variant cases and in accordance with CDC guidelines, their 540-family Congregation of Reform Judaism in Orlando reinstituted facemask requirements for all congregants and visitors entering the building (although not every congregant is on board to wear masks again).

Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, Arizona, also relies on a strict set of health protocols and procedures. To allow social distancing, the 700-family Reform synagogue will hold High Holiday services at a local 2,500-seat Baptist church. “We need to protect each other and keep everyone safe,” said Senior Rabbi Steven Kahn. “I have tried really hard to stay away from personal political associations and make it about the congregation and its health.”

At Temple Shalom in Dallas, a 620-family Reform synagogue, masking and distancing will be the protocol; everyone is expected to be vaccinated. Senior Rabbi Andrew Paley is optimistic that his congregants will do the right thing: “We are trying to encourage people to live this value of pikuach nefesh and take care of others even if they are perfectly healthy.”

Even with extensive safety precautions, some synagogues and congregants are playing it extra carefully. In Indianapolis, Jody and John Zucker plan to livestream for fear of contracting a variant and infecting their young, unvaccinated grandchildren. And in mid-August, Temple Beth-El, a 750-family Reform congregation in Providence, scrapped plans for in-person services because of the rise in breakthrough infections, despite the area’s high vaccination rate. “We want everyone to be comfortable and safe,” said Senior Rabbi Sarah Mack, who months earlier had planned in-person, livestream, and children’s services; masked, in-person outside children’s services are still planned.

The challenge is to provide meaningful and inspiring Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services when everyone is hoping for normalization, said Rabbi Benjamin Samuels of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a 220-member modern Orthodox congregation outside of Boston, which plans indoor and outdoor services at various locations: “How do you keep even the highly committed engaged and encouraged? We are facing a time of trial, and we have to display the vision and resilience that have been the hallmark of Jewish survival, continuity, and prosperity.”

The biggest challenge is the uncertainty, says Rabbi Yisrael Motzen of Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Congregation, a 250-unit Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore. “People are looking for some sense of normalcy … Our goal is to try as much as possible to make this as normal as possible.”

Orthodox congregations interviewed by Tablet said that High Holiday services will comply with strict Jewish law and CDC/local health guidelines. Changes may include outdoor services, abbreviated sermons, and eliminating some piyyutim (liturgical poems).

Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, a 90-unit Orthodox synagogue in Wynewood, Pennsylvania, plans socially distanced services in its large sanctuary as well as outdoor services, says Rabbi Yonah Gross. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, he will lead a communitywide tashlich service, the symbolic casting of sins on the water.

The Chabad Center of Sudbury will hold services in a 4,000-square-foot tent on its 2-acre property abutting a rustic 54-acre lot in suburban Boston. “It’s a beautiful nature spot. We plan to use the outdoors to our advantage,” said Rabbi Yisroel Freeman, who will also conduct virtual services before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for those not attending in person. The tent service requires preregistration so seats can be spaced out for the approximate 300 adults expected to attend. Also planned is outdoor programming for an anticipated 40 children, as well as tashlich with shofar blowing.

“We are more prepared than ever before. We have extensive experience providing High Holiday programs during the pandemic, with outdoor options and indoor options,” said Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel of Chabad at the University of Kansas, which serves the university’s 2,000 Jewish students and communities in Northeast Kansas. If breakthrough infections occur, he plans to tap into last year’s successful playbook; more than 750 KU preregistered students attended High Holiday services and pop-up events at 20 different outside locations, led by KU students and vaccinated, visiting Chabad interns. He will finalize plans a week before the holidays based on local health guidance.

Reintroducing people to a community environment and making them feel safe when they fear coming indoors is the greatest challenge this year, says Senior Rabbi Jonathan Aaron of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a 550-family Reform synagogue that plans to add a third service shift this year: “It is our job as a synagogue to help people through difficult times … Finding a way to be together in community and feel connected is the biggest challenge … We are not going back to the way things were but the way things are and people need some spiritual uplift.”

That’s why formally recognizing the return to community after 18 months of physical separation is important. The Talmud (Berakhot 58b) teaches that one recites Shehecheyanu, the traditional Jewish prayer of gratitude upon seeing a friend after an extended period of being apart. Upon reciting the Shehecheyanu during Kiddush—the blessing over the wine on Erev Rosh Hashanah—B’nai Jeshurun clergy will express significant gratitude for seeing each other’s faces in person, rather than in a box on a computer screen. They will also acknowledge the privilege of returning to pray, study, dance, sing, and perform acts of loving kindness together as a community in person.

Drawing from his heritage as a Sephardi Jew whose ancestors fled Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, Rabbi Sasso will mark the moment for his congregation as follows: “So, as we return to our limited in-person services, we will pick up from where we were, take with us the experiences and lessons of the past year and half, and move on to hopeful and healing new tomorrows …” Thus, he will recall Fray Luis de Leon, a prominent literary and religious personality in 16th-century Spain, of Jewish converso ancestry who had been imprisoned by the Inquisition. Upon being cleared of charges and released after several years, de Leon started his lecture at the University of Salamanca with the Latin words: Dicebamus hesterna die … “ As we were saying yesterday …”

“One of the challenges we are facing is how to plan for a moment of spiritual and, for many, physical return while we are still learning how to be a multi-access intergenerational prayer community,” said Assistant Rabbi Rebecca Weintraub of B’nai Jeshurun. “In so many ways, this Rosh Hashanah is the creation of a new world. Part of the spiritual work of this High Holy Day season is stepping into this unknown together.”

*Update: On August 31, Congregation Beth-El Zedeck switched its plans to livestreamed services only.

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.