As we return to public places, Shabbat Shuvah Offers a Chance to Reflect

By Adam Grobman

Each year, the High Holidays mark many Jews return to synagogue after a long absence. This year, that may be true more than usual, with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping many worshippers away and some synagogues closed for much of the past year and a half.

The Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as the Shabbat Shuvah, or the “Shabbat of Return.” While the word teshuvah is Hebrew for “repentance, or returning to a Jew’s essence,” the act of returning – to synagogue, school, workplace, and public places – had seeped into all aspects of our lives, before being partially upended by the COVID-19 Delta Variant.

“It’s not the same return I imagined – we’re still wearing masks and taking precautions,” says Rabbi Ariana Capptauber of Beth El Temple in Harrisburg. “But it is more of a return than last year, when we had about ten people plus leaders in person at High Holidays services.”

Rabbi Capptauber said she had expected to focus squarely on the message of ‘return’ during her High Holidays sermons prior to the recent COVID surge, and still plans to.

“I’m still preaching about returning to ourselves, to community, and to the earth,” she says. “That theme is universal to the High Holidays no matter what is going on in the world.”

She says that the Shabbat Shuvah, like the other days falling between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is a time to be introspective, work to improve relationships, and think about how we can improve ourselves in the coming year.

“It’s more important than ever to return to ourselves and our values in a time when our decision-making has been pressured and stressed and we’ve had high stakes around physical and mental health and security,” she says. “We can use this time to reflect on what our values are so we’re not just making snap decisions, but thinking long term about values and how we want to be living.”

While she hoped to see many members in-person at High Holiday services – noting that the synagogue had sold about 200 tickets for the first day of Rosh Hashanah – she emphasized that the pandemic is still dangerous and that people need to take care of themselves and each other.

“We have to take every precaution to keep one another safe from the virus,” Rabbi Capptauber said, while noting that ‘staying safe’ can mean different things. “I’ve also noticed the toll on mental health the pandemic has taken – it’s important for people to do things together, safely, as much as possible, and synagogue and Jewish community are excellent places to do that.”