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How to sing safely on the High Holidays — it’s not easy

Shorter services, held outside. Streamed services. Social distancing.

In the era of the coronavirus, congregations across Jewish denominations have been forced to modify cherished High Holiday rituals in order to mitigate the risk posed by singing.

It was a choir rehearsal in Skagit County, WA., which led to the infection of 53 members, that alerted everyone to the dangers of this most innocent-seeming activity.

“The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization,” wrote the CDC.

What’s more, a “normal” indoor service can be viewed as a kind of choir on steroids, given that some synagogues have choirs in addition to congregants who join in. The virus load in the air increased by the amount of time spent singing, the number of singers, the size of the space and how well-ventilated it is.

Scientists who study this kind of thing got right on it, said Dr. Jelena Sebric, who is researching ( the spread of COVID-19 by singing and playing wind instruments. “Church choirs and other singing events really play an important role in communities’ livelihoods, so everybody was actually invested, positive, and interested.”

Here’s some of the science behind the virus and singing, and some ways rabbis and congregations are trying to maximize both safety, and spirituality.

These recommended precautions for singing do not guarantee total safety, however.

What happened in Skagit?

Aerosols are small respiratory particles that people can emit when they sing, speak, cough or sneeze and that have the potential to spread COVID-19. The known risk of spreading the virus during group singing sessions caused choirs to shut down, and scientists to sit up and take notice.

They found that some people are what’s known as “superemitters.” They released more aerosol particles during speech or singing than most other people, causing “superspreading events” like that choir practice.

That adds to the uncertainty around coronavirus transmission, Srebric said.

“If two people sing the same tune, for example, and they get coached to sing it at the same level, they do not produce the same amount of aerosol.”

There’s probably some kind of range of aerosols emitted that scientists will be able to pinpoint someday, but that day hasn’t come yet.

All the uncertainty

Indeed, at this stage, the main thing doctors and scientists know is how much they don’t know. There’s just not a lot of data. COVID-19 is spread in pretty much the same way as similar viruses — it’s just more contagious and for some people, quite dangerous, wrote several experts in an article published by the National Institutes of Health in early July. But in this sense, choir practice has always been risky.

Lack of information is a real problem, and it means that infectious disease experts have to fall back on saying they don’t know how or when people can really start singing again until there’s an effective, accessible vaccine. In the meantime, people are going to try to muddle through by looking to what data we do have, and combining that with anecdote and intuition: “It must be understood, that these recommendations and decisions are made not only on what scientific information is available but on intuition and unsystematic experience that is often biased and inaccurate.”

The music-God connection

The thing is, many people really love and need to sing. It’s a powerful aid to prayer, for example.

At Congregation Schomre Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Rabbi Shlomo Krasner is still not only holding in-person services, he’s letting people sing.

Sure, there are tons of restrictions on this practice: tests are required, attendance is limited, masks are mandated. What’s more, Krasner is shortening many of the psalms to only their first and last lines.

“There’s no formal choir, but there’s the informal people who sing along or hum along, which can be a blessing and a curse,” said Krasner. “You want to connect, and in theory, one could connect without music, but it helps. It helps to focus the mind, inspire people, and make a relationship with God.”

Praying in real time, online

Cantor Lois Kittner also hopes to use the High Holidays as a chance to reconnect with her congregants at Adath Shalom in Morris County, New Jersey.

“I’ve been trained not just to be a service leader, but to also do pastoral care,” said Kittner. “Right now, I can’t hug them. I can’t sit with them in their hospital room. I have to reach out in any and every way that I can while keeping myself safe and keeping them safe.”

For the High Holidays, Kittner is helping to organize a live-stream service in which she and a rabbi lead prayers in real time between pre-recorded segments. She hopes that these virtual gatherings will allow her to support her congregants despite not being able to meet in-person.

“They need to know that I am praying with all my heart because I’m not only praying for my personal prayers to Hashem,” said Kittner. “I carry them with me. I carry my congregants with me all the time. Whether they are seeing me on a screen or not, they have to feel it.”

From Skagit to Hastings-on-Hudson: a silver lining?

Linda Moot, a choir director at Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., canceled weekly rehearsals in March following reports of the COVID-19 outbreak in Skagit County. Transitioning to an online-only format, Moot met with the choir every few weeks over Zoom.

“Whoever wanted to would sing something separately for us — just a folk song or a tune,” said Moot. “Then I expanded that to sharing a poem or even just a thought of the day and that turned out to be a wonderful experience to keep everybody together.”

When planning Temple Beth Shalom’s Zoom High Holiday services, Moot experimented with recording music at home. Finding this strategy to be time-consuming, expensive and impersonal, she delved deep into her own hard drive and began pulling from 20 years’ worth of choir rehearsal recordings.

“[I] played it a few weeks ago for the choir at a “meet-up” on a summer Wednesday,” said Moot. “They felt what I felt. At first, they didn’t believe it was us. Then gradually they began to hear their own voices,” said Moot.

During High Holiday services, the choir will have the chance to share this retrospective of their greatest works with the rest of the congregation, reconnecting both with each other and the larger community.

“My heart is in my throat just thinking about it,” said Moot. “It is such a beautiful thing.”


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