It’s been 5 months since our world changed. For many, it felt like being grounded by our parents: no more going out, the party’s over. Everyone has responded in their own way. Some love the fact that the Internet and streaming platforms can bring the world to our screens. Others are not interested in Zoom or any video conferencing app.
These changes have had a profound effect on all aspects of existence, including synagogue life. While Zoom services have brought many new participants each week, others who were shul regulars have no interest in a digital option. So what is someone who won’t do Zoom and can’t attend an in-person service to do?
This is a question I and many other rabbis have been asking ourselves as we try and create a plan for the High Holy Days. Our first holiday in quarantine, Passover, was relatively simple to plan for by comparison. Most Jews celebrate Pesah with a Seder (or two) that they prepare in their home or attend in someone else’s. The main concern was integrating Zoom into our traditional domestic celebration.
The High Holy Days presents a complex challenge because the fundamental way we Jews commemorate these days is through large in person gatherings in our synagogues, probably the most risky behavior anyone can engage in during a global pandemic. For 5 months few of us have participated in any gathering of more than a handful of people indoors.
So how can we create a meaningful High Holy Day experience? At Adath, our solution is to try and create multiple options, with different platforms, for people to have a spiritual and meaningful experience. God willing, there will be will indoor in person options (limited to a maximum of 25), but all of our services will be available on Zoom for those who remain at home. There will also be outdoor options: Tashlich and Shofar service on Rosh Hashanah and Yizkor on Erev Yom Kippur (with a Zoomed Yizkor on Yom Kippur day as well).
This is not a year in which Jews will simply be able to walk into shul, slide into the pew and passively experience reflection, repentance and atonement. The months of Elul and Tishrei have always been a time for work on our own, but personal commitment, initiative and creativity are vital this year. That is why we will provide resources for people to bring more of the holidays home for themselves and their families. One great idea is to create a Rosh Hashanah Seder based on the Sephardic tradition of having special symbolic foods on the holiday table that go beyond the basic apples and honey.
My colleague Rabbi Nicole Guzik recently wrote a piece encouraging us to not “opt out” of Judaism this year. It is easy to despair and decide that doing Jewish in a time of pandemic is just too difficult or not worth the effort. After all, the High Holy Days aren’t going to look and feel like what we are used to. But this is specifically the time to commit. If our ancestors were willing to hold on to their heritage under brutal conditions of oppression and poverty, we can do so during a global pandemic.
We must ensure that there is strong, vibrant Jewish community after all of this is over, and that means making a personal commitment to engage in Jewish life. One way to begin is to sign up for Jewels of Elul. You will get a thought each day of the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, an opportunity to start the important personal work necessary for a truly meaningful Days of Awe.