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A New Year Like No Other

As the High Holidays approach in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, synagogues rethink their offerings

Paula Jacobs
September 14, 2020
Rabbi Sarah Mack
Sanctuary, Temple Beth-El, Providence, Rhode IslandRabbi Sarah Mack
Rabbi Sarah Mack
Sanctuary, Temple Beth-El, Providence, Rhode IslandRabbi Sarah Mack

For decades, music has been a highlight of High Holiday services at Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island. Each year, more than 1,000 worshippers look forward to listening to the cantor as well as the professional choir and musicians from across Rhode Island who have become part of the Beth-El family. Typically, upon entering the Reform synagogue’s huge sanctuary, congregants hear meditative organ or piano pieces. In years past, music also accompanied the traditional High Holiday liturgy, with the sounds of a flute on erev Rosh Hashanah, a French horn at Rosh Hashanah morning services, and on Kol Nidre, a cello and organ playing the well-known Kol Nidre melody by German composer Max Bruch.

This year, though, because of the pandemic, there will be no live professional choir and the only instrumentalist will be the organist seated in the choir loft. Due to COVID-19 health risks, the cantor will be alone in the sanctuary, leading livestream services, with the rabbi socially distanced in the adjoining chapel.

Temple Beth-El’s decision to go virtual was guided by its medical committee and state restrictions on in-person gatherings, and informed by Jewish values such as the Talmudic principle of pikuach nefesh—saving a human life as the highest priority.

A major challenge for Temple Beth-El, like synagogues everywhere, has been how to capture the majesty of the High Holidays and create a sacred space while people are isolated at home. “On one level, it’s an incredible loss,” said Rabbi Sarah Mack. “We look forward to seeing familiar faces as we enter the building. It’s so hard to capture on Zoom or livestream the connections or the grandeur of the music.”

Compounding the issue is the technology itself, because producing virtual services requires new technical skill sets and substantial extra work, which makes High Holiday planning highly stressful, time-consuming, and labor-intensive. As Mack put it, “How to make our livestream camera into a Zoom agent is not something they taught us in rabbinical school.”

Because singing and shofar-blowing represent a coronavirus risk by emitting droplets into the air, many elements of the service will be prerecorded (with the assistance of a professional production company) including five choral videos featuring the professional choir and cantor singing liturgical hymns: Avinu Malkenu, Sim Shalom, and Shma Koleinu by the Jewish liturgical composer Max Janowski, Kedusha by American composer Andrea Jill Higgins, and Hinei (Ma Tov) by the American musician Rick Recht. There will also be prerecorded videos with the synagogue’s youth and adult choirs as well as former b’nai mitzvah students.

“The one thing that brings people comfort and solace is singing, but we can’t sing [in person] because we are superspreaders. I am singing the most important mishebeirach [prayer for healing] I ever sang in my life,” said Cantor Judy Seplowin, who is prerecording a mashup of Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach and Leon Sher’s Heal Us Now.

Sanctuary, Temple Beth-El, Providence, Rhode Island
Sanctuary, Temple Beth-El, Providence, Rhode IslandRabbi Sarah Mack

Rosh Hashanah represents a time of hope and renewal. But in 5781, as the pandemic continues to surge with no apparent end in sight, clergy are under intense pressure during the High Holidays to help congregants overcome their anxiety, pain, and grief, especially after months of loss and social isolation. And they’ll have to do it in a new way that doesn’t look like any High Holiday season they’ve seen before.

Comfort and healing have become a top priority this High Holiday season—and why many synagogues are tapping into the Hebrew month of Elul, the traditional period of self-reflection leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Temple Beth-El congregants will study Psalm 27, using the text Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year. They will study virtually with its author, Rabbi Debra Robbins, and with Rabbi Gavi Ruit Beth-El, who will lead the class, “Preparing to be Transformed—High Holiday Preparation.”

It’s why, too, some synagogues are using third-party, online resources such as 40 Holy Days, a free toolkit of music and inspiration featuring leading Jewish artists from around the globe, and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Shofar Project, an Elul-intensive program that incorporates Jewish mindfulness meditation, Torah study, and Jewish yoga.

To inspire hope and renewal during these times of distress and uncertainty, B’nai Jeshurun, a nonaffiliated synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has launched “Waze to the Light: High Holy Days 5781,” a diverse array of curated online resources including music, text study, art, poetry, and literature rolled out as “stops” on a guided journey throughout the High Holiday season, from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Simchat Torah. The synagogue is also offering special members-only programming and Zoom gatherings. “The world is broken,” said Rabbi Felicia Sol. “In this landscape, it is all the more important to search and seek.”

Prior to the pandemic, BJ High Holiday services were spread across seven spaces in four separate Upper West Side venues (the BJ campus, Symphony Space, the St. Paul & St. Andrew United Methodist Church, and Jazz at Lincoln Center) with a total of 30 services—including traditional, mindfulness, family, and young children’s services—that attracted thousands of worshippers. This year, BJ will livestream services from its sanctuary via VirtuShul, its virtual shul, so members and nonmembers alike can participate safely. Spiritual leaders, as well as Torah and Haftarah readers, will be socially distanced in the sanctuary; BJ’s musicians, an integral component of BJ’s prayer experience, will socially distance in the adjacent chapel.

“It’s challenging when people are so isolated. It is a very uncertain and agitating time with a lot of insecurity, financially and emotionally,” said Sol. “The greatest challenge is the loss that people will not be together.”

For cantors, this sense of loss is especially profound. Music has always played an important role in setting the mood and tone for the High Holidays, but because of COVID-19, cantors must now sing in isolation. “We desperately want to sing and lead the service … We mourn the loss of our ability to do so freely and without limitation,” Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky of Park East Synagogue, a modern Orthodox congregation in New York City, wrote in an email to Tablet.

Recreating the feeling of communal prayer in a virtual space is no trivial feat. “For me personally as a cantor, there is a particularly powerful and compelling feeling to sing along with a congregation and have them respond,” said Hazzan David Lipp, president of the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly and cantor at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a 420-family Conservative synagogue in Louisville, Kentucky. “So much of the liturgy and how we pray together assumes that we are in physical proximity with one other, and that loss is hard to overcome.” To address this challenge, Lipp hopes to create a back-and-forth effect where he appears to be singing with the choir, such as during the El Nora Alilah piyut sung at Neila, the closing service of Yom Kippur.

This year, Adath Jeshurun’s services will be entirely virtual, based on a hybrid model of livestream, YouTube, and Zoom for active service participants, such as Torah readers. The synagogue’s choir will prerecord several High Holiday videos of liturgical pieces such as Adon Olam and Kol Nidre. Given the Zoom fatigue of sitting in front of a computer for lengthy periods, services will be abbreviated, with optional breaks during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To keep families engaged, there will be children’s and intergenerational services based on customized prerecorded music videos created by Shirat Haruach, an initiative of Rick Recht, founder of Jewish Rock Radio, with Rabbi Josh Warshawsky and musical performer, Shira Kline. “There needs to be a combination of things because it is so easy to lose attention and meaning. We are trying to connect in any way we can,” said Lipp.

Unlike non-Orthodox congregations that plan to hold virtual High Holiday services because of COVID-19 issues, Orthodox synagogues do not use technology on Shabbat or holidays. Rabbi Ari Hart, spiritual leader of Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue, a 260-household modern Orthodox congregation in Skokie, Illinois, sees the uncertainty and logistics as the greatest challenges in planning this year’s High Holidays. “We are trying to be more comfortable with uncertainty,” he said. “Trying to live in a world that is uncertain is a key teaching of the High Holidays and not up to us.”

The shul will hold multiple, abridged services. Outdoor services will take place in a tent; those who choose to attend indoor services of 50 or fewer must register, complete a health questionnaire in advance, display no symptoms, be fully masked the entire time, maintain social distance, and sanitize their hands before entering the building. The shul is also closely monitoring COVID-19 case levels in the state and local area, and will make changes as deemed necessary by its medical committee. There will be no congregational singing or sermon. The same congregant will conduct the entire Torah service. Shofar blowing—using a special shofar with a custom fitted N95 filter—will take place outdoors; instead of the traditional 100 blasts, there will be only 40 blasts. Congregants will also receive Rosh Hashanah baskets with High Holiday and Torah insights, recipes and congregation greetings, children’s activities, a homemade honey cake mix that will be baked together over Zoom before the holiday, as well as a prerecorded professionally produced video series.

At the South Philadelphia Shtiebel, Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter has prepared a guide that outlines High Holiday plans, including details on abridged in-person and outdoor services, tips for davening at home, and links to virtual classes. Shtiebel Builders who contribute financially will receive at-home High Holiday kits, with a community-crafted machzor (High Holiday prayer book) supplement as well as goodies and Torah insights.

Spiritual connection offers significant benefits, and synagogues have begun membership outreach since the early days of the pandemic. “I think it is important for Jews around the world to maintain a connection, especially around the High Holidays and to be part of a Jewish community during a time of great uncertainty, fear, and divisions in society,” said Rabbi Aaron Melman of Congregation Beth Shalom, a 1,150-member Conservative congregation in Northbrook, Illinois, which plans to livestream High Holiday services via a paywall as a membership value-add. Like many synagogues, the congregation includes High Holiday tickets with membership and does not sell tickets to nonmembers.

Indeed, membership retention is one of the most pressing and complex challenges facing synagogues this High Holiday season. Yet when synagogue buildings are closed, it’s difficult to “sell” a virtual shul, especially to those struggling financially. Even though revenue shortfalls are expected during the current economic crisis, synagogues insist they will not turn away anyone for financial reasons, relying on those with the financial means to step up to the plate. Some congregations are offering publicly accessible High Holiday services and programs as a community service; others are restricting them to congregants as a membership incentive.

Congregation Beth Shalom has ratcheted up virtual programming and services, phoned every congregant, and distributed challot and ice cream treats. This summer, the synagogue produced a membership video about the value of connecting with the “Beth Shalom Family.”

“It’s our task as clergy during this difficult time to help people understand why the synagogue is so important to them and to the Jewish community,” said Melman. Despite the pandemic, Beth Shalom plans to stay on course with its High Holiday plans, including the annual synagogue appeal—with the hope that financially secure members will continue to donate generously during these tough economic times.

This year, synagogues everywhere anticipate a slight membership dip. Nevertheless, Melman remains optimistic about the future. “I also believe that the synagogue as an institution is stronger than one year with a blip,” he said. “Throughout our history as a people, we have always been able to withstand the challenges that have been thrown at us.”

At Congregation Beth El, an 840-family Conservative synagogue in Voorhees, New Jersey, “daily lifts” aim to provide spiritual connections, as does its membership video. “There is a disappointment in people’s hearts that they miss doing everything else that they are used to do communally. We hope to imagine that we are all together spiritually in the same place—one community, one congregation, with a demonstration of solidarity as a community,” said Rabbi Aaron Krupnick. Members will watch services on a prerecorded video, via a special access code.

While some may question the validity of a virtual shul, Krupnick begs to differ. “I have learned that we should not use the word ‘virtual’ in describing any of the ritual and spiritual acts we are taking part in. There is nothing virtual about engaging eye to eye and heart to heart with another person. It is not necessary to always have spiritual presence to be spiritually connected.”

The 5781 High Holiday season will be a radically different experience: no ushers checking tickets, schmoozing with friends, congregational singing, or crowded sanctuaries. Instead, there will be Rosh Hashanah baskets delivered to homes and Vid Hugs (video greetings), congregational singalongs, family photos, and Zonegs (Zoom meet-and-greet) displayed on computer screens. One thing is certain: We may be entering the New Year alone together, but we will also be connecting in ways never before imaginable.

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.