In courtyards and online, holiday services will look different this year

The rampant COVID-19 outbreak means that synagogues have effectively become no-go zones, even during the week.

Jewish men pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City. April 19, 2020. (photo credit: NATI SHOCHAT/FLASH 90)
Jewish men pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City. April 19, 2020.
(photo credit: NATI SHOCHAT/FLASH 90)
Prayer services during the High Holy Days are going to be far different than in the past.
For many, synagogues have become no-go zones during the coronavirus crisis. With the health risk posed by the pandemic, the lengthy and communal nature of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers means most services cannot take place indoors.
The solution for likely hundreds of thousands of worshipers will be outdoor services.
For many, such services are now commonplace, having been established on a regular basis since the pandemic first broke out in Israel in March before Passover.
They take place in the courtyards of apartment buildings, on adjacent balconies where space is in short supply, in gardens, parks or a mixture of such venues.
But the High Holy Days always attract more worshipers than the rest of the year, and that means these impromptu services require greater organization.
Benjy Richman, 75, who lives in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, has been organizing a regular prayer service since mid-March. Services take place on both sides of a residential street and from overlooking balconies, with around 25 people attending on weekdays and 80 on Shabbat.
For Rosh Hashanah, he expects about 90 people to attend on the street and another 30 from balconies.
To abide by government regulations, Richman has acquired several gazebo-style tents and guardrails to provide shade during the services and to separate worshipers.
Five separate areas are designated for men and four for women.
Because the service is outdoors and the weather will likely be hot, the length of services will be curtailed to about three hours.
One participant in the service who owns a Torah lends it to the community. Extra chairs were donated by another participant in memory of terrorist victims Dr. David Applebaum and his daughter Nava.
Effy Hochstein, 52, helps arrange regular services at the back of four different apartment buildings in Jerusalem’s Rasco neighborhood.
Some individuals participate from overlooking balconies, including an 80-year-old who performs the priestly blessing from the third floor and a 90-year-old who will blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah from the fifth.
The minyan has been “a great experience,” and the cooperative attitude has been a point of light, Hochstein said, adding that he misses the more comfortable venue of an actual synagogue.
In the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) city of Bnei Brak, courtyard services are also being planned for Rosh Hashanah.
Ya’acov Veeder, a haredi Likud member of the Bnei Brak Municipal Council, said government regulations for prayer services likely will be flouted due to high population density, biased enforcement of regulations by the municipality and public-diplomacy failure.
“Anyone who knows what Bnei Brak looks like, with its small spaces, little shade outdoors, and anyone who knows that Rosh Hashanah prayers can last six or seven hours, knows that the government regulations are not realistic here,” he said.
Public trust in the city has been lost for a good part of the population, Veeder said. During the first lockdown, most people prayed from balconies and courtyards, but recently there have been fewer such services and more people are praying in synagogues in greater numbers than are permissible, he said.
Enforcement of the regulations is essentially corrupt, Veeder said, adding that residents with connections to officials in the municipality avoid fines or have them canceled.
Some communities strictly adhere to the regulations, but he voiced concern that extremist groups in the city, such as the “Jerusalem Faction” and some hassidic communities, will likely pray inside synagogues in numbers far greater than allowed.
Veeder compared the situation in Bnei Brak unfavorably with that in another haredi town, Kiryat Ye’arim, where after an initial spike, infections have been kept low through a comprehensive public-diplomacy campaign and citywide measures designed to help residents maintain quarantine regulations.
The haredi community’s trust in the regulations was damaged by the ongoing demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Veeder said. Bnei Brak residents have cited those demonstrations repeatedly as unfair enforcement of COVID-19 rules, he said.
“I am very worried there is going to be huge chaos over Rosh Hashanah,” Veeder said. “We have one of the highest rates of infection in the country, and we’re never going to bring the rate down if things continue like this.”
One way around the problem of spreading COVID-19 over the High Holy Days, which has been embraced by many non-Orthodox communities, is to conduct services virtually via videoconferencing.
This method has been adopted for pluralistic digital High Holy Days services by the Zion Congregation in Jerusalem, in cooperation with the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis of the Hartman Institute and the Midrasha at Oranim.
The services will be accessible without violating Halacha, which has traditionally prohibited the use of electricity on Shabbat and holidays, the organizations said.
Zion Congregation and the Beit Midrash have prerecorded the High Holy Days services, and they will be broadcast online on their websites.
Users should set up their digital devices and navigate to the relevant webpage before the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the organizations said.
The prerecorded services will commence at a set time, allowing participation without any further use of the computer. They will be silent between services.
“This year in the shadow of the coronavirus and the concern for the danger to life, the High Holy Days will be very different and will be from afar,” said Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, founder and director of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis.
“This is a time when we need to learn to live with uncertainty and the fog of lack of information,” she said. “Along with the obligation for distancing, we want to practice mutual responsibility and protect our bodies and our souls and ensure that no one is left alone for the prayer services over the High Holy Days.”