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Behind the scenes of filming a socially distant Yom Kippur — in July

The High Holidays always arrive either early or late. Never once are they on time. But this year, when Yom Kippur arrived in mid-July, and Rosh Hashanah was on the 13th of the Hebrew month of Elul instead of the first of Tishrei, “early” took on a new meaning for me.

Congregation Shomrei Emunah, my synagogue in Montclair, NJ had decided early-on that “traditional (High Holiday) services will not be possible.” It distributed a survey to its members, asking us what an alternative might look like.

“What do you most look forward to about the Holidays?” the questionnaire asked. On a scale of one to three, we rated the importance of each of the following: sitting in the sanctuary, albeit socially distanced and in small numbers; celebrating with family; listening to the Rabbi’s sermon, listening to the Shofar blowing; singing familiar melodies and so on.

Based on the results of the survey — and before you could say Shana Tova — Rabbi Greenstein and the newly created “Moving Forward Task Force” began planning virtual services. Our journey toward teshuvah (repentance) in this pandemic New Year would consist of a combination of live and recorded portions of our liturgy and traditions.

And that is how I found myself chanting the third aliyah of the Yom Kippur Torah reading in my living room on July 13. My husband video-recorded me, following specific directions: Set the phone on the highest resolution, frame it horizontally and make sure there is enough light on the subject’s face. After a few attempts, we deemed it a success.

So why did I feel out of sync? First of all, I was reading about slaughtering he-goats and sprinkling bull’s blood on the ark cover from my phone screen, not from the actual Torah. I could not simulate an ark or bimah in my home, so I did the next best thing; I stood in front of a wall with three family ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) as I tried to invoke a Jewish setting.

I traded my summer uniform of shorts and a tank top for a five minute Yom Tov dress. I put on jewelry, the first time since the pandemic began. A dab of lipstick and some eye-liner? Sure, why not!

Reading Torah requires wearing a kippah and tallit. But does it also require reciting a blessing for wrapping myself in a prayer shawl when I am reading from my phone in my living room? To add to my asynchronous feeling, I hadn’t said one al cheit – “For the sin which we have committed before Thee” — and my stomach wasn’t growling. There was no one to wish Gemar Chatimah Tova, to have an easy fast.

My topsy-turvy Days of Awe continued when I chanted the Haftorah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah on September 3rd instead of on the holiday’s actual date, September 19th. I am always humbled to receive this honor. This year was no different. Except it was. The last time I had been at the synagogue was on Purim 2020, a bizarre night of revelry and foreboding. Now, on this hot summer day, the synagogue was a recording studio.

As I sang Hannah’s heartrending prayer beseeching God to open her womb (1 Samuel 1-2:20), I gazed at a room filled with strangers, boom microphones, professional lighting equipment and computer monitors. Absent were the familiar faces, the holiday prayer books, and the communal cry imploring God to inscribe us in the Book of Life.

Recording in advance of the High Holidays was not my first adventure with Zoom. Since March, Zoom and I have become best friends. The first time I had heard of the program was at my grandson’s virtual bris in mid-March. Subsequently, Shabbat services, holiday celebrations and life cycle events have filled my computer screen. As a matter of fact, I attended my first Zoom wedding on Labor Day weekend. It is impossible to keep up with all the Zoom invitations for cooking classes, concerts and lectures. I meet my adult ESL students in Zoom classes, just another way of staying connected in a two-dimensional world.

But somehow, it felt disingenuous to be plopped into these pre-recorded Days of Awe for a Zoom New Year. There was no awe in my recording studio/living room or in the recording studio/synagogue.

I thought back to the original congregational survey. I had given the highest rating to celebrating with family, especially now that I have two grandchildren who will hear the shofar blasts for the first time. I can smell my husband’s round challot, as he bakes one after another for all the fall holidays. I picture Erev Rosh HaShana dinner with our friends, a 33-year tradition that has been interrupted by the pandemic.

However, I underestimated the value of a congregation. My senses work overtime when I am part of a community that celebrates in person in a sanctuary. How did I ever take it for granted? This year, there will be no saving seats for friends, no squeezing to make room for one more person in our row. There will be no harmonies in the Avinu Malkenu prayer. I’ll miss the handshakes and the hugs. Who will have a pregnant belly? Who will push a stroller for the first time or walk with a cane? Whose absence will we mourn?

Instead, we will sit in the comfort of our home, sharing the New Year with children and grandchildren. As we follow the squares in the “gallery” on our computer screen, the integral moments of the service will be stitched together like a beautiful quilt. I hope our collective joy and trepidation will magically burst through the squares and into our home, as we pray for a healthier, saner and kinder world in 5781.

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