Our High Holiday picks: What to watch, read, do while celebrating virtually
When the coronavirus pandemic scuppered all IRL events in March, I expected to feel bored for a few months. I did not expect to experience crippling shame over my inability to keep pace with the slate of virtual events that has sprung up to replace our actual social lives.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve attended approximately zero of the virtual museum tours, live-streamed concerts, or enlightening Jewish discussions. As our Zoom-industrial complex expands, it’s increasingly hard to figure out what’s worth our nonexistent spare time.
But as the High Holidays approach, we’ve done that work for you by creating a curated list of virtual events and resources at your disposal. Whether you’re looking for an unorthodox ritual, an online offering to tempt your teen, or simply a discussion to augment your shul’s offerings, here are some of the season’s coolest virtual happenings.
If you’re looking for a free service to stream.
If you can, there’s every reason to cough up some change for your synagogue (or any synagogue) right now — High Holiday campaigns make up a significant portion of shul budgets, and that’s especially true in a year of economic instability. But buying a pricey ticket isn’t an option for everyone, and there are plenty of free services to choose from. Here are a few notable ones:
Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation in New York City, will make its live-streamed services available to the public. You can download a high-quality PDF of the synagogue’s prayer book to accompany your viewing. And advance registration isn’t required, making it a great option for those of us whose High Holiday planning starts on Rosh Hashanah morning. Check out the schedule here.
In Los Angeles, non-denominational synagogue IKAR is offering a slate of free services and events. One highlight: Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of “Just Mercy,” will speak at the morning Yom Kippur service. Later in the afternoon, you can choose from a variety of workshops and discussion sessions to join — even if you’re not a member. Learn more here.
Judaism Your Way, a non-profit in Denver, Colorado, has put together a schedule of free services available to all (you can unlock additional classes in yoga and meditation with a donation of any size). The schedule includes short family services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the organization’s rabbinic leadership represents four denominations: Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Jewish Renewal. Register in advance here.
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah has a long-standing tradition of free High Holiday services IRL, and that hasn’t changed during the pandemic. Founded in 1973 to serve the LGBTQ+ community, the congregation now welcomes all and will stream its services on Facebook. Register in advance here.
If you’re looking for a family-friendly live-stream:
If your kids can’t sit through a grown-up service during non-pandemic times, they’re probably not going to love it on Zoom either. Get them excited about the High Holidays with this suite of family services from Havaya, a summer camp affiliated with Reconstructing Judaism. These services are seriously down with the youth: the description even quotes Justin Bieber. Havaya services will take you from the introspection of Selihot to the festivities of Simchat Torah.
Services are free to camp families and the public. Register here.
If you’re looking for offline family time:
Maybe another Zoom event is the last thing your kiddos need. Take your family offline with PJ Library’s family guide, created especially for this unusual season. You can pick and choose from a series of activities that take you through the season. Some involve the internet — there’s a video retelling of the story of Jonah and some recorded Kol Nidre melodies — but you can also print out a guide to Rosh Hashanah foods, an interactive primer on High Holiday prayers, and a family “workbook” on reflection and goal-setting for the year ahead. If you want to replicate the youth programming your kids are missing this year, PJ Library is your best bet.
The PJ Library guide is free. Find it here.
If you want to stream with your teen:
Are teenagers known for their earnest appreciation of High Holiday services? Not really. Will they be jazzed by “Higher Holidays,” Hillel International’s slate of online offerings? We’re betting on it. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you can choose between two options: an “in the book” traditional Reform service (albeit augmented with some light yoga), or a “beyond the book” discussion-style experience. “Beyond the book” events include appearances from millennial and Gen Z Jewish luminaries including climate activist Jamie Margolin, chef Jake Cohen, and former Michelle Obama speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz. The “Higher Holidays” lineup also includes a musical Kol Nidre performance and a Yizkor service featuring the indie folk duo Milk Carton Kids.
”Higher Holidays” is free. Register here.
If you want to let your hair down:
Check out JewBelong’s “Sins Stars and Shofars,” a streamed experience that’s part service, part stand-up comedy show. Led by a cast of Jewish (and Jewish-adjacent) comedians including Vicky Kuperman and Karith Foster, the program blends elements of a traditional service (viewers can follow along with the blessings and prayers using JewBelong’s Rosh Hashanah booklet) and interactive exercises centered around High Holiday themes like repentance. This is a program you can stream with a glass of wine in hand — or two. In keeping with JewBelong’s mission of welcoming interfaith families into the tribe, the service is accessible and entirely in English, making it a great option for those streaming with a non-Jewish partner, friend or roommate.
_“Sins, Stars, and Shofars” is free. All donations will benefit Be’chol Lashon. Register here. _
If you want to hold yourself accountable:
A product of Jewish arts and culture non-profit Reboot, 10Q is a yearly reflection project that takes place during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Here’s how it works: Each day from September 18 to September 28, you’ll receive an email prompting you to answer two reflection questions on 10Q’s website, one about your year as a whole and one about your experience during the pandemic. This year’s questions haven’t yet been revealed, but past examples include “Have you had any spiritual experiences this year?” and “How would you like to improve your life next year?” After answering the last question, you submit your answers to an imaginary Internet “vault.” When the High Holidays roll around next year, 10Q will email you all the answers so you can see how far you’ve come.
10Q is free. Register here.
If you want to connect tradition to current events.
Browse Confessions of the Heart, an anti-racist curriculum created by the Jewish Emergent Network and activist Yavilah McCoy. The four-week program, which began in August and is currently in progress, includes a daily dose of readings, podcasts, and videos around race and Jewish identity, accompanied by reflection exercises you can complete at home. Wherever you begin, the readings and resources collected by Confessions of the Heart will challenge and enlighten.
Confessions of the Heart is free. Learn more here.
If you need to check in with yourself:
Want to take stock of this turbulent year, but not sure how? Check out the Union of Reform Judaism’s “Reflection Project,” a set of DIY rituals to help you reconcile the ongoing pandemic with the renewal of a new year. Options include a straightforward question-and-answer check-in, to a collaging project you can complete while enjoying “your favorite drink” (we know what that means), to a DIY memorial ritual for the events and even feelings we’ve missed during this year of plague.
The URJ’s “Reflection Project” is free. Find it here.
If you’re looking for new rituals:
If you’ve ever frantically cobbled together a makeshift haggadah the night before Passover, you’re probably familiar with Haggadot.com, a website that lets users design their own haggadot. This year, Haggadot.com has branched out with a new website devoted to all things 5781: HighHolidays@Home. There you’ll find everything you need to elevate home observance from obligation to treasured ritual. Some of our favorites: a set of blessings to recite during Elul and booklets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur you can read in addition to or instead of formal services. If you’re planning to host a Rosh Hashanah seder this year, HighHolidays@Home has a haggadah for you — you don’t even have to design it yourself.
HighHolidays@Home is free to use. Explore the site here.
If you want to take your traditions online:
Most Reform and Conservative synagogues have embraced virtual services, and within those denominations there’s a wealth of online options to choose from. Less so for Orthodox synagogues, who abstain from using technology on holidays. That’s where Kehilath Jeshurun, an Orthodox congregation in New York City, comes in. Ahead of the High Holidays, the synagogue is releasing concert-quality videos of its cantors and rabbis conducting highlights from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. The “virtual shul” includes Sephardic prayer rituals, youth resources, and a very cute video of a baby pretending to blow the shofar. For those staying home for the holidays but longing for a more traditional experience, this is a great option. Even if you’re staying offline during the holidays themselves, you can enjoy the videos before or after.
Kehilath Jeshurun’s videos are free. Find them here.
This is a curated list of events on tap this season. If you’re looking for an exhaustive database, check out JewishLIVE, a clearinghouse for virtual events that includes a calendar of virtual services, or HereFor, a platform for a wide variety of Jewish organizations to share High Holiday-related virtual events.