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How to get the most out of virtual High Holiday services

If you’re planning to attend High Holiday services virtually, like thousands of American Jews, welcoming the new year might seem easier than ever before. There’s no need to wriggle into pantyhose, find parking, or put up with your in-laws at dinner. In fact, all you need to do is roll out of bed, turn on your computer, and stream services in pajamas from the couch.

That is, if you want the experience to provide the same spiritual sustenance as the conference calls you’ve been streaming in pajamas from the couch for the last five months.

On a scale of one to braiding enough round challahs for your entire extended family, virtual services are a pretty low-effort endeavor. But if you don’t want to spend the most reflective days of the Jewish year in a haze of Zoom fatigue, you’ll want to do a little planning before you tune in.

We asked three rabbis — Rabbi Nathan Weiner of Congregation Beth Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue in in Marlton, N.J.; Rabbi Yohanna Kinberg of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in Kirkland, Wash.; and Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann of Mishkan, a non-denominational synagogue in Chicago — how congregants can get the most out of virtual services. Ahead of a High Holiday season different from all others, here’s what you need to know.

Before services

Pre-service planning doesn’t need to be a hassle — but rabbis stressed that this year, a little forethought goes a long way. Here’s what you need to do before the High Holidays begin:

Prepare your space. Designate a comfortable place in your home as this year’s “sanctuary.” Choose a space you normally use for relaxing, like a living room, said Rabbi Weiner, and steer clear of home offices. Remove distractions — think iPads and unfolded laundry — from that space. Then, fill it with things that help you feel calm and reflective, even if you wouldn’t normally find those things in a synagogue. You may want to light scented candles, sit on a yoga mat or under a blanket, or surround yourself with family photos.

If you have kids, invite them to decorate the “sanctuary” with artwork. Rabbi Kinberg is teaching families in her congregation to create a mizrach, a wall ornament that hangs on a room’s eastern wall to indicate the direction of Jerusalem. Make your own with this template from the Jewish National Fund, or supply your kids with some High Holiday-themed coloring pages.

Prepare your tech: Don’t hunch over your laptop for the duration of the High Holidays. Stream services on a television or place your computer some distance from where you’re sitting. To mimic the feeling of watching the rabbi at the bima, you can even place your streaming device on a stand or over your best table cloth. For a no-stress start to the holiday, be sure to practice connecting to the streaming platform the day before — and if you’re doing a reading or participating in the service from home, use these tricks to look and sound like a pro.

Prepare your mind. The month of Elul, which includes the High Holidays, is traditionally a time of learning and spiritual preparation for the new year. Yes, we know, “learning and spiritual preparation” isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But a few hours of reflection can be a helpful reminder that though it sometimes feels like “real life” went on pause in March, the Jewish new year is really here. Check out these video teachings from the Women’s Rabbinic Network or The Shofar Project, a four-week program including meditation and Torah study from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. For the young people in your pod, BBYO is running an Elul “Kindness Calendar” that includes daily challenges, and Hillel International has teamed up with Reboot to produce “Higher Holidays,” a slate of streamed events that students can view at their own pace.

Prepare your stuff. Don’t underestimate the importance of evocative physical objects, said Rabbi Kinberg. Like many other synagogues, Kol Ami is delivering prayer books to each family ahead of the High Holidays. If this is an option at your synagogue, make sure to obtain a prayer book before services; if not, download and print the service liturgy, rather than following along on your phone. Dust off your candlesticks and light candles on the night before Rosh Hashanah. Have apples, honey and challah on hand. You can even set up a special table to display these items during services.

During services

Now that you’ve prepared a space for worship at home, you have to actually attend virtual shul. While services will look different at every synagogue, there are some things you can do to make your experience participatory — not passive.

The rules of shul still apply. No matter how accustomed you are to hosting Zoom meetings in your pajamas, putting on something formal will help you “be as present as you can,” said Heydemann. If you normally wear a kippah or tallis, make sure you have it on hand now. And though no one may see it, checking email is still a no-no. Leave your devices at the (living room) door.

Watch with others. If you feel comfortable, and if your regional coronavirus guidelines allow it, consider rigging up an outdoor projector and hosting a socially distanced streaming gathering with friends. But don’t worry if in-person gatherings are a no-go. Rabbi Heydemann is encouraging congregants to form virtual “watch parties” and stream services together; if you’re not sure how to do that, here’s a quick tutorial.

Belt it out. It can feel odd to daven without a crowd, but don’t be afraid to sing along or pray out loud — if you’ve never been a confident crooner, this may even be your moment to shine. At many synagogues, virtual services will include interactive components: Rabbi Weiner will ask congregants to answer discussion questions using Zoom’s chat functions, and Rabbi Kinberg will allow congregants to chat in breakout rooms. (If breakout rooms still confuse you, here’s a helpful primer.) Embrace whatever options your synagogue offers. They might not be part of the “traditional” synagogue experience, but it can still be a meaningful one.

Take care of yourself. At an in-person service, you’d probably duck out of the sanctuary for coffee or a quick chat with a friend. So don’t feel guilty about taking a break at home, whether that means stretching your legs or (except on Yom Kippur) grabbing a snack. Like many other synagogues, Rabbi Weiner’s Beth Tikvah is offering a virtual “lobby,” or unmoderated breakout room, where congregants can schmooze with each other at any point during the service. If this is an option for you, be sure to take advantage!

After services

In a normal year, festive dinners and family gatherings would complement somber services. For many of us, those get-togethers just aren’t possible this year, but your High Holiday experience doesn’t need to end when streaming does. Rabbi Kinberg is encouraging congregants to treat Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as day-long “retreats” filled with meaningful activities. That could be as simple as doing a yoga video, performing a DIY tashlich ritual with your family, or tuning into an online song session (for a comprehensive calendar of virtual events, check out Jewish Live, a clearinghouse of pandemic-era Jewish life).

Looking for something more structured? Check out the Union for Reform Judaism’s Reflection Project, an online resource created just for this year, which includes a set of spiritual “check-in” questions, at-home rituals for remembering lost loved ones, and several different meditation exercises. Or head over to JewBelong, where you can print out a Rosh Hashanah “roadmap” with questions to help you reflect on the year behind us and and helpful scripts for any apologies you want to make before the new one begins. There’s even an online tashlich ritual for those of you that don’t have a body of water at hand.

The TLDR: No question about it, the High Holidays will feel different this year. But virtual services can be more than a “decent enough replacement” for in-person ones, said Rabbi Weiner. All it takes is an internet connection, a machzor, and a willingness to listen to your own singing voice. Onward!

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.


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