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Worried about celebrating holidays remotely? Tips from a Jewish expert

Congregation Neveh Shalom’s Rosh HaShanah service had just wrapped up. But the congregants, assembled in squares on the Zoom gathering, remained online, even after the conclusion of the three-hour long service ringing in the Jewish New Year of 5781.

Rarely do I make it to the end of the lengthy service in synagogue. But this year, I, too, stayed through the concluding prayer, standing alone in my living room, computer propped on a stand, borrowed prayer book in hand.

Online, though, I wasn’t alone. And the feeling of togetherness had washed over the hundreds of others who had joined me in logging on to the service. This New Year was cheerful and celebratory after all.

And Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and even secular New Year’s Eve 2020 can be, too.

The service had ended, but no one went for the “Leave Meeting” button. Organically and one by one, people stepped out of prayer mode and just started talking to one another. “It’s so great to see each of you,” the rabbi said. “How are you doing?” asked one congregant of the group. A few “fines” followed, everyone all smiles.

Then the pièce de résistance: One among us got straight to the point: “So, what’s for lunch?” Cue the guffaws.

Traditionally, Jewish folks decamp from services in their synagogue to gather in the homes of family members and friends to feast on a festive lunch. Apple slices to dip in honey always are on the menu, as is a circular shaped loaf of challah, often dotted with raisins. People don’t say “Hi” to one another. Rather, conversations — and feasting — start up after a round of “Happy New Year,” or the Hebrew equivalent, “Shanah Tova,” or the Yiddish, “Gut yontif.”

Many Jewish folks from all denominations, including at Neveh Shalom in Southwest Portland, spent much of the summer vacillating between hand-wringing and optimism. How can our two most important holidays of the year be meaningful in cast out isolation?

Worried, we forged ahead, creating creative online solutions for our communities to not only acknowledge the Jewish New Year — and the more-somber Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, that follows shortly thereafter — but to really celebrate them. Together, in community, even if physically apart.

I know the majority of people are anticipating Thanksgiving, with Christmas shortly to follow, as their first communal holiday since they got a handle on this pandemic and the forced remoteness it has wrought. (Yes, Passover and Easter occurred as Covid-19 really sank its talons into our lives, but much of our collective online savvy wasn’t yet on board as it is now.)

Take heart. And take some time to put more thought than usual into how to make your pending holidays meaningful. Create an online event for Thanksgiving that includes, say, a toast, a communal meal and a scheduled portion of the evening where everyone remains muted until it’s your turn to share what you’re thankful for — yes, even in the midst of this year defined for many by the unexpected, by sadness and struggle.

For Christmas, make your plans ahead of time to attend church online. Make sure you have the right links, hymns and prayer book at the ready. Or, take this opportunity to attend church with a friend or family member across the country.

You’ve heard there’s an impressive pastor out there, a few time zones from home? Can’t even get together with folks for a gift exchange? No matter: The Internet allows you to try something new from the comfort of where you and your computer sit.

And the best gift this year may be your smiling face in a small square on a loved one’s computer screen. That, and some well-timed jokes about New Year’s lunch.

Jenn Director Knudsen blogs at francofamille.com, often about travel (though not recently, sigh) and about her daughters, both teens. She holds a master’s from UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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