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High Holidays 2020: Rabbis start to think outside the synagogue

About 2,000 years ago, Judaism swapped animal sacrifice for prayer. This fall, it will face another challenge that, while not quite on the order of the destruction of the Second Temple, is still historic: How to conduct the faith’s holiest — and best-attended — services while maintaining enough physical distance between congregants to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

At a time when people are craving human and spiritual connection, rabbis are feeling even more pressure than normal to create a deeply meaningful High Holidays experience. Some — clergy and congregants — are looking toward 2020’s Days of Awe with anxiety, but others are relishing the challenge of radically rethinking what is possible in the context of an ancient tradition.

“Let’s blow it out of the water,” said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, who leads the 1,800-household Temple Rodef Shalom, a Reform synagogue outside Washington, D.C. “It will change us next year and the year after. We’ll realize we can push into new boundaries.”

The High Holidays — meaning chiefly Rosh Hashanah, the New Year; and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement — happen in the fall, and they are when synagogues are at their busiest. The staff works through the summer to coordinate services for the largest crowds of the year. Rabbis spend weeks crafting special sermons, and cantors compose elaborate musical programs.

Though it is only May, the 14 rabbis from egalitarian denominations — Reform, Conservative, Reconstructing Judaism and Humanistic — who were interviewed for this story are making their plans based on the assumption that synagogue buildings will need to be closed when Rosh Hashanah starts, on September 18.

Indeed, even as the United States begins efforts to restart its economy, a broad range of Jewish leaders ha agreed that synagogues should be among the last institutions to reopen, wherever they are, in order to adhere to the Jewish doctrine of pikuach nefesh, which mandates setting aside religious obligations in order to save a life.

There are practical considerations, too — none weighing on rabbis more deeply than the dangers of singing, which studies are showing can spread the coronavirus at alarming rates. Even singing with masks on is possibly unsafe.

Then there are shofars, the ceremonial ram’s horn blown at climactic moments in the High Holiday services. No scientist has actually measured the dispersal of coronavirus in aerosol droplets shooting forth from a hollow ram’s horn. But at least one study found that vuvuzelas — the plastic horns from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa — can “propel extremely large numbers of aerosols” that can lodge deep inside the lung.

The study was enough to scare Rabbi Joshua Heller, whose Conservative synagogue, Congregation B’nai Torah, outside Atlanta, usually sees 3,000 attendees over the High Holidays. He said caution is more important than speed right now, and he and his staff are working on creating multiple possible options for the fall.

“I’m okay if we are not the first to announce our plan, if those plans are what end up meeting the safety and spiritual needs of our community,” he said.

Brief, and intimate

Rabbis said they are working together to tackle the challenge of re-envisioning High Holiday services. Reconstructing Judaism, for example, has begun a weekly Zoom conference attended by over 60 rabbis called “Dreaming of the High Holidays,” said the movement’s president, Rabbi Deborah Waxman.

The rabbis all said it is impossible to translate the holidays’ elaborate schedules — services across multiple sanctuaries, special programs for toddlers, children and teenagers, classes, guest speakers — to streaming.

“How can we create ritual at home for people?” asked Rabbi Sarit Horowitz, of Beth Shalom Synagogue, a Conservative community in Memphis, Tenn. “Part of that requires people’s openness, because it won’t be the same as being in shul with 500 other people.”

Horowitz is playing with the idea of a Seder for Rosh Hashanah, in a spin on Passover’s ritual meal. Though the idea is still in its infancy, she is mulling using excerpts from the High Holiday prayerbook, the mahzor, to create a service for families to do at home, around their dinner table. Families would focus on different symbols — apples, honey and pomegranates instead of matzah, shank bones and horseradish — perhaps with guidance from YouTube videos made by their rabbis and cantors.

Just about everyone agrees that the services will be brief. Zoom and Facebook Live attention spans can’t support hours-long High Holiday services. Synagogues in the Reform movement, America’s largest, as well as those in Reconstructing Judaism, a denomination with just under 100 communities, have more flexibility in using technology and changing the service structure, since their denominations prioritize adaptability over adherence to halacha, Jewish law.

Conservative synagogues will place a higher emphasis on making their adapted services comport with halacha. Jewish law only considers certain parts of the High Holiday liturgy to be obligatory. That could mean stripping down Yom Kippur to Kol Nidre, the evening service; the prayers “Avinu Malkeinu” and “Shma Koleinu”; the rabbi’s sermon and Yizkor, said Heller, of Congregation B’nai Torah near Atlanta.

If not in synagogue, then where?

There are three main formats rabbis can use for services this year: in-person; broadcast, which has rabbis conducting services via Facebook Live or YouTube, with no interaction from congregants at home; and services over software like Zoom, in which congregants can participate.

Most of the synagogues consulted by the Forward said they will try to mix up the formats of their services. That could mean, for instance, a socially-distanced tashlich ceremony, when one casts one’s sins — in the form of bits of stale bread — into a body of water; a Yizkor mourning service over Zoom and a broadcast — maybe even pre-recorded — of Kol Nidre.

The services might be accompanied by opportunities during the 10 intervening days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for small groups to spend a half-hour or so inside the synagogue. Schwartzman said that Rodef Shalom in D.C. might offer in-person yoga or text-study classes for maybe 50 people at a time in their main sanctuary, which can seat up to 950 people.

Rabbi Rachel Ain, of the Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan, said she and her colleagues plan to use that period to make sure that every family has an opportunity to approach the ark where they house their Torah scrolls, a tradition usually observed over the final hour of Yom Kippur services.

That, Ain said, will give congregants a chance to do what so many are missing: be in their synagogue, their “sacred space.”

The big show

While all the clergy who spoke with the Forward expect they’ll be closed for the holidays, some haven’t yet made the final decision yet. Others have — four months out.

Temple Sholom, in Cincinnati, Ohio, announced to their congregation that they would be all virtual last Friday, said Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp. They’ve invested thousands of dollars in their livestream and prayer-on-demand operation over the past few years, drawing in viewers from around the country. Terlinchamp said that her decision was based around not over-extending her staff by making them plan for multiple High Holidays scenarios.

“Even if we have mud on our face in September and everyone is running around and hugging and sharing drinks, we’re still not gonna go back,” she said.

Yet while other synagogues anticipate saving money on virtual services — no overflow spaces to rent, no guards to hire, no catering bill! — Terlinchamp said she expects to spend more. She’s hiring a full band and videographers and renting out a professional sound studio to create pre-recorded services.

High Holiday services are a performance, she reasoned: “Let’s just own the performance part.”

‘A mourning period’

During the pandemic, some synagogues have been able to bring in large numbers of viewers for their Zoom- and Facebook Live-based services. But High Holiday services derive a good chunk of their spiritual intensity from the sheer crush of a sanctuary filled to capacity. If people feel left adrift on their couch this year, there is concern that those people will be less likely to return the next year.

Some congregants are so eager to return to synagogue that they are pressuring their rabbis to host in-person services even though the clergy are in higher risk categories, such as being over the age of 65, said Rabbi Hara Person, head of the Reform movement’s rabbinical association.

“There’s gonna be a mourning period,” said Sutton Place Synagogue’s Rabbi Ain, for people who want things to just go back to normal. But she is hopeful that people will reconcile with reality, like they did for Passover: “Judaism is an adaptive culture.”

Rabbis in the South and middle of the country, which have seen their economies reopen or protests pushing for a reopening, are concerned about how to pitch a distanced High Holidays, especially to congregants who simply don’t think the economy should remain closed.

“I’m in Georgia, where you can go bowling and get a tattoo of your score,” said B’nai Torah’s Heller. “I have congregants who based on their sources of data don’t see this as a threat in the same way that others do, and may not see the need for caution.”

Perhaps the biggest question mark remaining is fundraising. Many synagogues use the large crowds of the High Holidays to make appeals, or ask congregants to buy space in special booklets. Synagogues that require tickets are wondering if they can reasonably charge for a Zoom service. Schwartzman said that if they do end up foregoing use of their building for services, there will be no tickets this year.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who leads Congregation Or Ami, in Calabasas, Calif., said that his synagogue will likely not have tickets, and instead he will just double the number of calls he usually makes in the weeks before Rosh Hashanah to check in on families and broach the subject of financial support, to around 300 households this year. If that doesn’t yield results, he said, they will simply organize an annual campaign.

The silver lining of the uncertainty, said Heller, is that it has pushed rabbis, perhaps more than ever before, to lean on one another for support and ideas. That collective brainpower is what’s keeping him calm for now.

“I think some of the best ideas for how to run these High Holidays haven’t been had yet,” he said.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman


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