Synagogues Adjust, Reinvent High Holidays During Pandemic

By Mary Klaus

Most years, area Jews mark the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with long services in synagogues filled with the largest crowds of the year,

Not this year.

As the Jewish calendar turns to 5781 at sunset on September 18th, Jews will experience reconfigured observances of the holy days. This year’s practices in the era of COVID 19 follow the Jewish law principal of pikuach nefesh which holds that preserving human life overrides other religious rules.

Don’t expect Rosh Hashanah to feature packed shuls with   congregations listening to the sound of the shofar. Ten days later, don’t plan on seeing full sanctuaries on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, fasting, and prayer.

Many sanctuaries will only have a rabbi, a cantor, and a few others participating in a live service. Others will offer services via Zoom and other technology which area synagogues have been using for several months.

“It’s easy during quarantine to focus on negativity,” said Rabbi Sam Yolen of Beth Israel Synagogue in Lebanon. “Be gentle with yourself and don’t beat yourself up.”

Here’s what area synagogues plan for this year’s High Holy Days:

Rabbi Elisha Friedman of Kesher Israel said that his Orthodox congregation will not have virtual observances because “we don't use electricity on Shabbat and holidays. We are holding multiple small services to accommodate the people who want to pray with us this High Holiday season.”

He said that some services will be inside, some outside, some quick, and some longer, “although all will be much quicker than our normal five-hour service. Everyone can attend a service which meets their preferences.”

Rabbi Friedman said that the shofar will be sounded at all the services, including an outdoor service for children (boys under 13 and girls under 12). Everyone will be required to wear masks and sit socially distanced. 

Preparations for this year’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have been much more complex than usual due to the new logistics, he said. Yet, Rabbi Friedman expects that the days will be less stressful than usual because services will be shorter and he will be handing out his sermon, rather than delivering it.

Rabbi Carl Choper said that Rabbi Amita Jarmon will lead most of the High Holy Day services at Temple Beth Shalom, a Reconstructionist shul. He said that the services will include Jews from the Jewish Home of Greater Harrisburg, Carlisle, Chambersburg, and Hanover.

Most of Temple Beth Shalom’s services this year will be led from the synagogue sanctuary. A small group of people wearing masks and social distancing will be there to facilitate the service, manipulate the Torah scrolls, and handle the camera system and tech support. The services will use slides to graphically present key elements of many of the prayers. Chanting of some of the traditional prayers may be shorter than usual.

Most of the congregation will follow the services on Zoom which also will be streamed on YouTube so people can tune in. Some parts of the service may be led from the home where the rabbi is staying. 

“Rabbi Jarmon has always leaned towards an interactive style of service which has included some amount of straightforward davening or chanting of the service and also breaking into small groups for discussion,” Rabbi Choper said. He said that some online sessions will be Torah study, some chanting, and some small groups through Zoom. No services will be held outside due to security reasons.

Rabbi Choper said that the challenge for rabbis this year has been to imagine what is possible, to figure out how the technology works, and to decide what can be an inspiring experience.

At Temple Ohev Sholom, a Reform congregation, services will be done virtually and congregants will be given links to open on their computers, said Rabbi Peter Kessler.

          Temple Ohev Sholom members have been divided into three groups based on membership categories.  “We recognize that this is a more complicated way to celebrate the High Holidays than in years past,” the rabbi and Rob Teplitz, congregation president, told the congregation in a letter.

          For Rosh Hashanah, members can watch a pre-recorded service at their convenience between 5 and 11pm on September 18th.  During the High Holidays, members can watch other pre-recorded services, some for adults and families, and some for children, as well.

          Temple Ohev Sholom also is donating needed items to Health Ministries of Christ Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, which operates free health clinics, a prenatal clinic, an urgent care clinic, and a dental clinic.

The conservative shul Chisuk Emuna Congregation will be meeting online for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year “to meet the needs of its members in this unprecedented time and in keeping with our understanding of Jewish law,” said Rabbi Ron Muroff.

He said that congregants will receive links to Zoom services for Erev Rosh Hashanah and the first day of Rosh Hashanah and Erev Yom Kippur, including Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur Day.

Rabbi Muroff, along with Rabbi Jonathan Milgram, High Holiday chazzan, and Gerry Gorelick, ritual director, “will be joined by Chisuk Emuna members in leading services and sharing reflections to make these services as personal and meaningful as possible,” the rabbi said.

Chisuk Emuna is providing High Holiday gift bags for every congregational member/family.  Contents of the bags were provided by the Urie family, Barbara and Bruce Bazelon, Faye Doctrow, the Rubin families, and the Chisuk Emuna Sisterhood and Brotherhood.

The bags included Mahzorim, resources on how to celebrate the High Holidays at home, gifts for preschoolers and grade school kids, High Holiday treats, and a special pair of candles for a communal congregational candle lighting on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Mahzorim are to be returned to the synagogue within three weeks after Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Ariana Capptauber of Beth El Temple said services at that Conservative shul will be done livestream this year. She said that the only ones who will be in the shul will be herself; Eryka Velasquez, High Holidays cantor; Bill Walter, executive director; Rick Leiner, president; and lay leaders who are leading parts of the service or who have an aliya.

“There will be around a minyan of people at a time,” Rabbi Capptauber said. “Those not actively leading will be wearing masks and sitting apart. We will sound the shofar on Sunday in the sanctuary as part of services, with the shofar blower standing at a great distance from others.
Children's and teen services, mincha, and Neila on Yom Kippur, will be done over zoom and participation will be done through assigned roles.”

Yom Kippur services will be live streamed, with those participating directly in services in the building.

Beth El Temple’s new rabbi said that the pandemic presents a special challenge because she hasn’t yet met most of her congregation in person.

“The High Holidays typically would have been an opportunity for me to meet many people in person,” she said, “but given the circumstances I will have to find other ways to get to know the Beth El community.” 

Beth Israel Synagogue of Lebanon will have digital services for the High Holidays, said Rabbi Sam Yolen of this Conservative shul. He said he will allow up to 10 people in the shul “if they really need to be there. Our community has people who don’t know how to use a computer. That’s been a problem.” As of late August, the rabbi said the synagogue was still finalizing plans of how to best serve the congregation.

 He said that like many congregations, Beth Israel Synagogue started offering digital streaming by necessity and now continues to offer it.

Three rabbis had special messages for the High Holidays.

“During these times, compassion may be low,” Rabbi Yolen said. “This is a time that requires trust in God and in the goodness of ourselves. Never miss an opportunity to reach out to another person. A phone call and message may mean the world. The Jewish people have been through nearly everything and will get through this.”

          Rabbi Capptauber said celebrating the high holidays virtually this year “will bring sadness to many Jews as they long to be together in person.” She reminded people of the many resources of the Jewish community: “the wisdom of our tradition, the peace of mind brought by our spiritual practices, and the comfort of our communal connections, even when made from afar.”

Rabbi Friedman said that despite the challenges of this year and the unusual aspects of the current High Holidays, people should remember the timeless quality of Judaism's message.

“The ethical values and the traditional trust in G-d in every challenge shines through,” he said. “Judaism's eternal teachings provide guidance whether in a pandemic or during prosperity. Be kind to others, trust in G-d despite all the uncertainty of life, and pray to Him for a good year.”