What American rabbis are thinking as the new year dawns amid the pandemic

The rabbis and cantors charged with leading their communities through this time are facing a set of challenges uniquely their own.

BETH MEIR Synagogue interior. (photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
BETH MEIR Synagogue interior.
(photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
As Jews across the globe brace for a High Holiday season unlike any that has come before, the rabbis and cantors charged with leading their communities through this time are facing a set of challenges uniquely their own.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reached out to rabbis in pulpits across the country and the denominational spectrum to hear how they are coping with this unprecedented moment, where in Jewish tradition they are looking for inspiration and guidance, and what messages they hope to impart to their communities as a Jewish new year dawns. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
“I miss you. And I love you.” Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles
It seems odd to address my kahal [community] during arguably the greatest national and international crisis in most of our lifetimes without referring to COVID-19 and the way in which it has insidiously infected nearly every aspect of reality. Having said that, I feel in my bones that we are COVID-ed out. Parts of me wonder if during the few hours of worship we offer, the best thing I should be offering is a message more lofty, helping imprisoned folks escape some of the fetters of this COVID crucible.
So I am struggling with that as I think through themes, and also consider weaving in messages about this particularly American moment through which we are living, as the nation convulses in its myriad responses to racial injustice and the looming presidential election.
What I most want to convey is that I care, and I am here. I have been sending nearly weekly videos to my congregation. On each one, I sign off with a short phrase that emerged from my lips rather organically, without any scripting: “I miss you. And I love you.” I feel all seven of those words powerfully. My life as a rabbi is meaningfully impoverished without the regular ability to check in, in person, with my kahal.
So if all other High Holidays messages I offer are eclipsed by one clarion message — that I remain here, alive, robust, present and ready to continue to be a meaningful part of their lives as we all navigate through these rocky shoals — then I will have considered that to be a success.
“A prayer for our broken world” Rabbi Mari Chernow, Temple Chai, Phoenix
First and foremost on my mind this Rosh Hashanah is a prayer for our broken world — for healing and health, for a return to fullness and blessing. Rosh Hashanah has universal significance – it’s the birthday of the world – so a prayer for every soul that is suffering in any corner of the earth is appropriate.
The entire Jewish world is longing to be in community. We will all miss the sanctuary packed with friends, family members and fellow travelers on this spiritual journey. That weighs heavily on me, as that full room provides momentum and support for all of us. On the other hand, we are always working to empower people to take hold of their own prayer experiences and not necessarily feel bound to whatever is happening at the front of the room. This year may provide an opportunity for people to create meaningful prayer in entirely personal ways. I’m in favor of whatever takes people to the deepest and most enlightened place that they can go.
One text that I can’t get out of my head is the talmudic story of Yohanan ben Zakkai escaping Jerusalem in ruins. There is a lot to learn from that story about crisis and transformation. It is the archetypal Jewish story of how to adapt in the face of major disruption.
“Gratitude amidst pain” Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple, Los Angeles
On Rosh Hashanah we say, hayom harat olam. “Today, the world was created.” What world will emerge after? How will you be different? Have you used this time to grow, to learn, or only to lament? Every growth involves pain and loss, but the choice is not whether we lose, but whether we grow.
One would think that Yom Kippur should precede Rosh Hashanah, because first you should repent and then celebrate renewal. But Rosh Hashanah is about gratitude, and until you are grateful for what you have you cannot think about what you may have done to diminish it. So I am thinking about gratitude amidst pain, appreciation and wonder despite the very real trials and tragedies of this time.
“How can I be real with my community?” Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Congregation Beth Israel, North Adams, Massachusetts
I’m keenly aware that the Zoom/digitally mediated experience doesn’t work for everyone. And yet I’m grateful to have it as a way to connect our hearts and souls in community, because I think we especially need community connection in these times. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be in this new kind of diaspora — scattered by the pandemic into our homes, needing to make sacred space in our homes — as a parallel to the seismic shifts of the fall of the Temple. How can we best learn to connect with God and with text and tradition from the place where we are?
On Rosh Hashanah, I will recall how local non-Jews stood up in support of us after Pittsburgh, as a way in to talking about Black Lives Matter. At Kol Nidre, I’ll speak about the radical hope that we can change old patterns and be different than we were before. And before Yizkor [the memorial service], I’ll speak about our interconnections — as evidenced by ecosystem change and global pandemic, and also on a more personal scale, how we can continue to be connected with those whom we have lost.
What’s weighing on me personally is how can I be real with my community about everything that’s broken in our world today, while also uplifting their hearts and spirits to seek and find (and create) hope for a better future. How can I best balance the need for familiarity in this unprecedented year, with the reality that we can’t “just do what we did last year” because the changed medium and changed circumstance means that we need to adapt how we pray? What do my people need, and how can I help them find it?
“How do we come out of this better people?” Rabbi Aaron Brusso, Bet Torah Synagogue, Mount Kisco, New York
I’m not sure how this will transform into holiday messages but here are the questions on my mind:
When it comes to this pandemic, what lessons are we taking away from this shared experience?
For some this is devastating economically, but not for all. And for those who are managing, is this an inconvenience and a plans-wrecker, or the most profound collective global gift to humanity in any of our lifetimes?
How has this made us think differently about scarcity and abundance? How do we understand service and shared sacrifice? How do we deal with the fact that we don’t control our destinies, our lives on this planet like we thought we did?
What does our inability to plan for the future teach us about the value of being present? What does it mean that a microscopic product of nature has brought us all to a standstill? What do we do with how humbling that is?
“A covenantal experience within a virtual context” Rabbi Stewart Vogel, Temple Aliyah, Woodland Hills, California
Our community is dealing with the reality that services that will only take place virtually. For the many people who only come to services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they might not yet have felt the estrangement from Jewish community, but they will now. The High Holy Days are a time of reconnecting to tradition, faith and community. In a Sinai-like moment, it is the communal experience of the High Holy Days that is so powerful and profound.
Our synagogue, like many others, is struggling to figure out how to provide that covenantal experience within a virtual context. Like Moses speaking to the new generation of Israelites about to enter the Promised Land, we will reframe this “wandering experience” as one of potential growth and learning. I believe that the successful synagogues will not try to replicate the usual experience in a virtual format, but rather to utilize the virtual format to create a different High Holy Days experience.
We learn in the Talmud that “whenever 10 (people) are gathered for prayer, there the shekhina [God] rests.” While synagogues will create the most unique High Holy Days that the Jewish people have ever experienced, as many people sit watching services on the screen, they will also be reminded of the need and power of community.
“The stakes are higher than they have ever been” Rabbi Evan Moffic, Makom Solel, Highland Park, Illinois
I’m approaching Rosh Hashanah this year feeling the stakes are higher than they have ever been. My congregants and community need me right now.
We are all dealing with uncertainty, anger, loss, and fear. I am listening to their unspoken needs and hopes and planning to address them in my sermons. Those sermons are about time, fear, loss and hope.
I feel these may be the most important High Holy Days since after Sept. 11, 2001.
“The power of simple acts of connection” Rabbanit Goldie Guy, Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, Chicago
A theme I’m thinking about a lot in the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is our constant interconnectedness and interdependence. The social distancing measures we’ve been taking for months do not work unless every individual practices them. This is reflected in the words the hazzan [cantor] says three times before Kol Nidrei on the eve of Yom Kippur: “With the permission of God, and the congregations of the gatherings above and below, we permit praying with those who have transgressed.”
These words recognize that when we pray together, our fates become, in a way, entwined. The intense experience of vulnerability brought on by the pandemic pushed many of us not only to mandated physical isolation, but to social isolation as well. It may well be a preservationist instinct: faced with real threat, we close our inner circles and protect and care for those who are closest to us.
But we must resist that urge. The pandemic has taught us the power of simple acts of connection. It has also taught us the suffering that comes with lack of connection. We must recognize that our connection must extend beyond our inner circles, and already does extend to all those around us – for the worse, and hopefully for the better.