Chazzanim upbeat ahead of challenging High Holidays amid COVID-19

Synagogues and communities are struggling to run their services amid the pandemic, and have found alternative ways to at bring people’s hearts together.

Members of Bulgarian Jewish community stand in silence during a service in the Sofia synagogue (photo credit: NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/REUTERS)
Members of Bulgarian Jewish community stand in silence during a service in the Sofia synagogue
(photo credit: NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/REUTERS)
While COVID-19 has affected many industries, most professional Israeli cantors (hazzanim) who are usually invited to lead High Holy Day services over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in congregations around the world are finding themselves unemployed, since most synagogues will remain closed and flights out of Israel are still mostly banned.
This is where virtual services come in. Synagogues and communities are struggling to run their services, and have found alternative ways to at bring people’s hearts together, though keeping one’s audience tied to the screen during Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah can be a challenging task.
But those who refrain from conducting virtual services on Shabbat and holidays will face other challenges, like how to conduct those many and smaller minyanim (prayer quorums) during the High Holy Days, and complying with local health regulations.
Perhaps this might be a good opportunity for those unemployed hazzanim.
With so many shared challenges between Jewish congregations, several Facebook and WhatsApp groups have recently opened to provide some groundbreaking creative ideas.
Among the participants in these are many renowned cantors.
Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky from the Park East Synagogue, in New York City, is one of them.

Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky,  Park East Synagogue, New York, NY (credit:Benny Rogosnitzky )Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky, Park East Synagogue, New York, NY (credit:Benny Rogosnitzky )
“The Jewish world is facing a crisis within a crisis. The pandemic has caused communities to shut down and put the lifeline of connection between Jews on hold. The centrality of the synagogue in Jewish life and tradition simply cannot be underestimated. In my conversations with leaders of communities, cantors, and members of synagogues, what’s become abundantly clear is that life is going to look very different for quite a while.
“With that in mind, we have to take care not only of our physical homes but of our spiritual homes. I envision an abridged High Holy Dad service where some may be wary of coming to services, and even if the local state governments allow it, they will choose to stay home. For them, pre-recorded High Holy Day services, certainly for those who follow the Orthodox tradition, would be an important touch so that people could get a sense of what they might experience at the service even while staying at home.
“For others, it’s going to mean a very different service in the sanctuary, not sitting near their friends, with the focus being singularly on the service, and for the leadership of the synagogue to keep in mind the importance of moving the service along. Certainly, some highlights of the tefila (prayer) will be in order.
“But my recommendation to cantors this year is to look over the tefila with a different view, with an eye to special moments of inspiration that can elevate those who are brave enough to venture out and come to services. Ralph Rosenblatt, the youngest son of the greatest cantor, Yossele Rosenblatt, told me that his father used to say that the entire service is a prelude to the moment when the cantor can be the bridge and connector between man and God, through the beautiful music he sings and the emotions that he shows.
“I remain hopeful that communities will have an opportunity to come together, even if it will look different than last year, but we need prayer now, more than ever. I am confident that the creativity and ingenuity that our community leaders, cantors and membership possess will allow for a meaningful service and, most importantly, for a sweet and healthy New Year.”
MOTTI HASFARI, the founder of JVocals, the online platform for Jewish voice professionals, said, “The demand for pre-recorded High Holy Day services has opened an opportunity for us.”

Motti Hasfari, founder of JVocals photo credit: Alon MorMotti Hasfari, founder of JVocals photo credit: Alon Mor

“When we realized that holding public and private events with cantors might take a while, we started creating digital content that eventually went extremely viral. We brought together international collaborations with male and female cantors singing “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Naomi Shemer) and chanting the famous prayer for the state of Israel, “Avinu Shebashamayim” (Sol Zim).
“When the need for pre-recorded services arose, we came up with a wide range of virtual music solutions (digital audio and video content) for cantors, choirs and congregations, to elevate the High Holy Day services and bring the hearts together, even when apart. We’re already working with a few congregations in the US.”
Elli Jaffe, world-renowned conductor and composer, who is also the music director of the Cantorial Music Central School in Petah Tikva, asked, “How can we meet this challenge of the dual obligation of sincere prayer and limitations on public gatherings?”

Eli Jaffe, music director of the Cantorial Music Central School in Petah Tikva. Photo credit: Michal CohenEli Jaffe, music director of the Cantorial Music Central School in Petah Tikva. Photo credit: Michal Cohen
“I’m constantly being asked by my student cantors, who are about to lead the High Holiday services. Ways to shorten the length of services are being discussed. I asked former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who advised me to tell my cantorial students to concentrate on what the Rabbi called the ‘backbone’ of prayer.
“We may, in fact, have to pray in ‘street’ or ‘outside’ minyanim whose surroundings do not do justice to the grandeur and majesty of the holy days. Since in every adversity we try to find something good, I am advising my students, and all cantors and public prayer leaders, to encourage the participants in the services and join as much as possible in the audible recitation of the prayers, acting as a choir!
“This, after all, is the challenge to every cantor, to lift the public in their emotions toward heaven in heartfelt prayer. He is not just an entertainer, but a spiritual ‘elevator,’ as it were. His prayer ‘From the depths I called to you, O Lord,’ should lift them up. He must beg, ‘Father, our King! Withhold the plague from your heritage! Send complete recovery to the sick among your people!’
“And may the good Lord listen to our cries and prayers and inscribe each of us for a good life. And may we be privileged someday soon to see His high priest leave the Holy of Holies in His sanctuary unharmed and hear the proclamation of forgiveness for the people from the Almighty!”
Cantor Rebecca Garfein, senior cantor at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, said, “Putting myself in my parishioner’s shoes, the comfort of familiar melodies and faces, even over virtual means is one way we can address these challenges and make worship meaningful, even though we are physically apart.”
Cantor Rebecca Garfein, senior cantor, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, New York, NY credit: Ellen DubinCantor Rebecca Garfein, senior cantor, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, New York, NY credit: Ellen Dubin

“Certainly, the technical ability to create spiritually fulfilling moments during the High Holy Days will be more of a challenge, but we now have the ability through companies such as JVocals and others to create beautiful music for the Days of Awe through the screen. Though not a perfect solution, to still have the ability through technology to reach our congregations with our souls and voices, makes our role as cantors very central to what will be communicated this season.”
With the help of God and Zoom, with all those challenges, we all hope this year for a k’tivah v’chatimah tovah – May we be inscribed for a good year. 

Listen to Hazzan Zvi Weiss, cantor of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem  chant ‘Acheinu Kol Bet Yisrael’.

This article was written in cooperation with JVocals.