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‘Car Nidre:’ These synagogues are taking High Holidays to the parking lot

Parking lots get a bad rap.

There’s even a Joni Mitchell song about how awful they are: “Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got/ ‘Til it’s gone/They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot.”

And the 2019 movie “Isn’t it Romantic?” Rebel Wilson played a lovelorn architect whose parking lot project served as a metaphor for under-appreciation.

Yet in this time of pandemic, Rabbis Jonathan Berkun and Guido Cohen are seeing safety and an opportunity for innovation in parking lots’ rigidly divided spaces.

“We don’t believe in this false dichotomy, that you are open or you do everything online,” said Berkun.

For Berkun and Cohen, making sure congregants at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue, in Aventura, Fla. could connect with one another in a safe way was essential. Whereas some people come to synagogue to talk to God, the rabbis said, many come to talk to the person next to them. They decided to offer drive-in services this Rosh Hashanah, so that worshippers can enjoy being with their community from the safety of their own cars.

The bimah, where clergy will conduct the service, will be projected onto a 40-foot movie screen; members will view and listen to the services from their vehicle, and can amplify the volume by turning the radio to a designated station.

“They’re still in their cars. It’s outdoors and very casual — come as you are in shorts — but there will be vitality, vibrancy and the sense of optimism,” said Berkun. “It’s very important that they get the sense that they’re part of a tribe, a community, a group of people to whom they belong.”

Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center will live-stream their services on an open Zoom link in addition to blowing shofars around the neighborhood and offering worshippers appointments for private prayer at the sanctuary’s ark.

Like Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, Rabbi Stewart Vogel, who serves Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, Calif., is finding a middle ground between the safety of online services and the warmth of in-person services by offering a “Car Nidre” service.

“Some synagogues are offering in-person services in very small numbers and that just wasn’t an option for us,” said Vogel, whose synagogue regularly hosts 800 families on the High Holidays. “And the question is, given some of the age ranges of people and those who are immunocompromised and at risk, are you in some way potentially encouraging them to come to something that they shouldn’t?”

Vogel will also be staging an outdoor shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah and will open up the arc in the synagogue sanctuary for individual prayer over the next few weeks.

“I think the most important part is trying to figure out, how do we use this disruptive moment? Not to replicate what we would be doing online,” said Vogel, “but to do something different and perhaps as meaningful or more meaningful in a different way?”

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