Jews around the world to observe High Holy Days in new ways

This year, Jewish communities have to find ways to make prayers and customs safe during the pandemic.

HEAR THE call of the High Holy Days in the Old City’s narrow alleyways. (photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR)
HEAR THE call of the High Holy Days in the Old City’s narrow alleyways.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR)
Jews across the globe are adapting their prayer services to limit the spread of COVID-19 during the High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish new year, at sundown on September 18. The second High Holy Days, Yom Kippur, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and begins at sundown on September 27. Both holidays draw far larger crowds than other days. This year, Jewish communities have to find ways to make prayers and customs safe during the pandemic.
A spokesperson for the Jewish Community of Turkey, an Istanbul-based affiliate of the World Jewish Congress, told The Media Line: “Mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and cleaning rules will be strictly followed.”
At the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, the rabbi emeritus, Dr. Raymond Apple, told The Media Line that the new measures include “running an array of services with limited numbers at each one and a [shortened sermon]. … The synagogue choir will not be singing.”
In Kraków, Poland, the Jewish community is small enough that social distancing in the large synagogues is not a problem. However, at the Jewish Community Center [JCC] of Kraków, their social hub, people will be divided into smaller groups to protect older and sicker members.
“We have a special dinner just for Holocaust survivors, and then the next night is the regular community, and the next day is children and families. Instead of having the whole community together, we’ll have to split things up this year,” Jonathan Ornstein, executive director at the JCC Kraków, told The Media Line.
“One of the strengths of our community is its intergenerational aspect. In larger communities, you normally have things more divided [into groups, but] because of the recent re-emergence of Jewish life [in Poland], we try to do everything together.”
“I think that Kraków is resilient, especially our Holocaust survivors, who have been through the Shoah [Holocaust] and Communism,” Ornstein said. “They’re not especially worried or pessimistic about what’s going to happen with corona because they’ve lived through difficult times.”
While Orthodoxy is the predominant stream of Judaism outside the US, Reform and Conservative Jews are more commonly found in the US.
All of them have to adapt their services for the coronavirus crisis, and the most frequent change is a shorter prayer session.
Yosef Ote, the community rabbi of the Orthodox Hazvi Yisrael synagogue in Jerusalem, said services were being reduced from four hours to slightly more than two hours.
Amy Schwartzman, senior rabbi at Temple Rodef Shalom (TRS), a Reform congregation in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Falls Church, Virginia and the largest synagogue in the state, said that the services will be virtual and are being cut to one hour instead of two and a half.
Normally crowded congregations – most of them at this time of year -- are mandating social distancing and masks.
At Hazvi Yisrael, the gabbaim, who make sure that the Torah is read correctly, will also check that worshippers are wearing their masks properly the entire time.
Noses and mouths will not be the only things covered to prevent the virus’s spread.
Senior Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ), an Orthodox Synagogue in New York City, said that the shofar, a ram’s horn sounded on the High Holy Days, will be tested for the coronavirus and will have a mask placed over its end to prevent tiny droplets from spreading while it is being blown. Steinmetz’s congregation is limiting attendance to those ages 12 and older because it can be difficult to get children to comply with guidelines.
Changes in ritual customs are more limited for Orthodox Jews, who strictly observe Jewish law, known as halakha. This includes not using technology on the holidays, so services cannot be shown online.
Synagogues must pre-determine how many people are coming, so they can hold enough prayer sessions to accommodate more, smaller groups instead of a large crowd in order to comply with health regulations.
“We will make sure to find a service for anybody who says they’re coming to synagogue them … even if it means that we have to rent another space or pray outside with the tarp,” Ote said.
This can be a logistical nightmare as health rules change. Israel has been discussing a possible total lockdown, lockdowns in some neighborhoods and curfews.
“It’s difficult because you also have to find service leaders, Torah readers and shofar blowers,” Ote said. “As of now, we have enough space [but that can change]. We have two weeks to figure it out.”
Congregants who are not physically present will miss services at a time when Jews pray for God to write them down in the book of life for the coming year, and synagogues are trying to facilitate a meaningful experience for people who cannot attend.
Steinmetz, the senior rabbi of KJ in New York, told The Media Line: “We are telling people that if they don’t feel comfortable attending this year, they should not. … We’ve decided that if you can’t come to KJ, KJ will come to you.”
The synagogue, or shul, will send members commentaries and guides that go along with the High Holy Days prayer book. KJ is also creating a High Holy Days website for pre-holiday viewing, with sermons and “concert quality” videos with Rosh Hashanah prayers featuring the cantor, who leads the singing, and the choir.
“For us, it really is about being an Orthodox synagogue and still trying to reach out to members” in accordance with Jewish law.
Not all holiday-related events are hi-tech.
Rabbi Ote in Jerusalem said: “Those who can’t attend will get a phone call from me and … we’ll provide a shofar on the second day. I also send out all the halakhot [Jewish laws], the rules and regulations about how congregants should pray at home, so they know what they can and can’t say without a minyan of 10” men, he added.
Jewish law requires hearing the blowing of the shofar during this period, so Ote, his wife and some volunteers will go to neighborhoods around Jerusalem on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, blowing the shofar for congregants.
TRS in Virginia belongs to the more progressive wing of Judaism and is laxer about observing Jewish law, as illustrated by its safe shofar solution.
“On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, we have secured the big 600-car parking lot at Wolf Trap [a vast outdoor concert venue in Northern Virginia] for two services,” Senior Rabbi Schwartzman told The Media Line.
What follows is a shofar tailgating party of sorts.
“We bought a shortwave radio station for the day that works within a one-mile radius and people will pull in with their cars and turn on the radio. In the middle of the parking lot, we’ll have these flatbed trucks where the half-hour service will take place,” she added.
Orthodox Jews would not drive or turn on the radio on the holiday.
Technology is key for Reform and Conservative virtual services, which will be pre-recorded and/or livestreamed. For many of them, tashlikh, the symbolic casting away of sins by throwing bread into a body of water, will also take place online.
Reform and Conservative shuls have been avoiding in-person events during the pandemic.
However, TRS, will have smaller, in-person sessions between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, including a 25-person maximum, pre-recorded meditation in the sanctuary, which can hold up to 900 people. There will be tzedakah, or charity, events from vehicles in the synagogue’s parking lot. Even the cars will be socially distancing.
People who attend must wear masks and sign a statement saying they do not feel sick and have not been around anyone with COVID-19. Participants will also have to leave their cellphone numbers so they can be notified if someone in attendance becomes ill.
Conservative synagogues, which do not follow halakha as closely as the Orthodox, are also making modifications for the new reality.
With just three in-person events during the High Holidays, Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas, exemplifies this approach. Its holiday schedule includes a moment in front of the open ark, which holds the Torah, and a pre-Kol Nidrei event outside in vehicles followed by a “drive-in movie-style” screening of the service. Kol Nidrei is an Aramaic declaration recited before the evening service at the start of Yom Kippur.
Like their Reform counterparts, the synagogue’s other services will be livestreamed in a “Choose-Your-Own-Experience observance.”
No matter how it is marked, Rosh Hashanah is a chance for a new beginning.
TRS’s Schwartzman said: “Renewal is something we are desperate for. We are trying to create a spirit of hopefulness and resilience.”
Hazvi Yisrael’s Ote added, “Rosh Hashanah, unlike Yom Kippur, is all about the world and togetherness. That’s where our focus should be: not for ourselves but for others.”
“Am Yisrael [the nation of Israel] is there for the world … but [internal ]unity is our main challenge. We have to accept and respect people that don’t have the same opinions and live a different type life,” he said. “I think that if we can succeed with that, there’s no stopping what we can do as a nation.”
Read more articles from The Media Line.