On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, also known as the High Holidays or Yamim Noraim (“Days of Awe”), one of the prayers reads: “Who will live and who will die … Who by plague … .”

“Most years, many see those words as theoretical, but this year they will feel more real,” former U.S. Deputy Health and Human Services Secretary Tevi Troy told JNS.

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic—with 6.5 million cases in the United States and more than 190,000 deaths since the start of the outbreak earlier this year—synagogues nationwide have drastically adjusted their holiday programming to minimize congregant interactions and time spent in one area.

“The requirements of social distancing will limit the capacity of our shul facilities and, in many cases, require us to subdivide into smaller groups. Distancing and masking will challenge the feeling of community among the assembled,” stated the Orthodox Union in an Aug. 14 guidance. “Time limitations and other constraints may force the elimination of inspiring parts of the service. And, most difficult of all, many members of our communities may not be able to come to the synagogue at all.”

OU executive vice president Rabbi Moshe Hauer told JNS that “halachic guidance and a variety of options regarding whether and how to shorten the time together in shul has been provided by many national halachic authorities, and local rabbis should decide the halachic solution that is most fitting for their community.”

For example, Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Southeast with more than 500 member families, is hosting both back-to-back indoor and outdoor services for Rosh Hashanah, which starts after sundown on Sept. 18 and continues until nightfall on Sept. 20. Masks and social distancing will be required at all times. Outdoor services will be held under rented massive tents.

The first services on Sept. 19-20 are slated to start at 6:10 a.m., with the second beginning at 9:45 a.m. Both are designed to be truncated due to the pandemic, as opposed to the usual several-hour long service.

There will also be the option of only a “one-hour express” of shofar and Musaf, Beth Jacob executive director Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler told JNS.

“If you are praying at home and you just want to have a taste of synagogue without checking in for a multi-hour service, you could still come,” he said. Those blowing the shofar will be tested either on the day of or the day before, though the shofar is not blown on Shabbat, in this case on Sept. 19.

Yom Kippur plans have yet to be decided, according to Tendler. He described the holiest day in the Jewish calendar as “a different beast,” considering that services on Yom Kippur—that holiday starts at sundown on Sept. 27 and ends at nightfall the following day—are longer than those on Rosh Hashanah, and, of course, involved the fast.

“We’re going to learn lessons,” he said. “We’re going to see things on the ground and how they play out.”

Meanwhile, Chabad congregations in the United States will operate in accordance with local, state and federal guidelines in which thousands will consist of outdoor services.

A “yad” (pointer) resting on an open Torah scroll, Big Synagogue Museum, Wlodawa, Poland. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

‘Balance the value of coming together’

Outside of Orthodox synagogues, which strictly conform to Jewish law and therefore don’t use technology on Shabbat or the High Holidays, synagogues nationwide plan to host virtual services.

In New York, the Conservative congregation Or Olam will be using livestreaming and Zoom, and have parts of the services pre-recorded and live, respectively, in order to “replicate as best we could services as we had them in the building even though we’re out of the building,” the synagogue’s rabbi, Eugene Wernick, told JNS.

Nonetheless, the services will be “trimmed because sitting in front of a screen is tiring on the body, not on the mind,” he said.

Additionally, there will likely be less social interaction outside of synagogue.

“People will congregate less outside of shul and do less sharing Yom Tov meals with non-family members, but we are all focused on safely maximizing the sense of connection and community for our community members,” said Hauer. “Our goal for this year is to balance the value of coming together with exercising the necessary safety precautions.”

‘We must bring look out for each other’

Despite the shortened services, “the key to davening [‘praying’] is not the length of the services, but the kavanah, ‘intentionality,’ and the quality of our prayers,” Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, which is Orthodox, told JNS.

“The core of Yamim Noraim is tefillah [‘prayers’] and now, more than ever, we need to turn to God for his support. There is a deep uncertainty about what this year holds for us,” he said. “The Yamim Noraim always bring some measure of tension. This year, the level of uncertainty is even more pronounced making the experience even more fraught with angst.”

“We are not just asking God to take us out of this struggle, but we must bring God into this struggle. His presence gives us the strength and resilience to carry forward, and find hope in this most difficult time,” continued Berman. “In this time, the central guiding principles in our tradition are safety and health. All of our synagogues and communities need to have these on the forefront of their consciousness. So, wearing masks and social distancing is a part of our service to God. It keeps us safe, and it keeps our neighbors safe.”

Berman also remarked that the blowing of the shofar has meaning, especially during a pandemic.

“The shofar has been sounded every year for thousands of years, through the most triumphant and challenging times throughout Jewish history,” he said. “It is both the sounding of the shofar and the listening to the shofar that has given us the strength and ability not only to survive, but also to thrive.”

Hauer echoed Berman and said that “while the service will need to be shorter, it’s very important that the service not lose its soul. Communal singing, words of Torah inspiration and familiar elements of the liturgy are all very valuable components of the High Holiday experience. If deemed safe and practical, they may be reduced but not eliminated.”

The pandemic has created “a renewed appreciation of the value of our relationships with family, friends and community. Ironically, we may be more completely joining together as a community than in the past,” said Hauer.

“Many in our community have suffered the loss of loved ones and have experienced serious illness, financial difficulty, isolation, and profound uncertainty and stress,” he continued. “We must look out for each other and reach out to each other with understanding and support.”

Shofars are sounded on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

‘No politics from the bimah’

Along with the pandemic are the heightened tensions in race relations, with the continued shootings of African-Americans by police officers, and the upcoming Nov. 3 elections—both contentious issues in which the Jewish community is no exception to the rule.

Expect the additional topics to come up during the High Holidays, according to Jewish community leaders, though those who don’t like politics inserted into sermons may not have to worry since most synagogues are expected to either have quick or no talks by rabbis in accordance with restrictions due to the pandemic.

“My synagogue has a ‘no politics from the bimah’ rule, and I prefer shuls that maintain that approach. I want words of Torah from my rabbi, and political commentary from cable news or talk radio,” said Troy. “That said, I suspect that race relations, COVID-19, and the election will be hot topics from many pulpits this year.”

Though not addressing race relations and the election specifically, Berman said “the central theme of this period is the sanctity of each individual. This is demonstrated by our emphasis on safety and health, but also animates our responsibility and connection to one another, and bolsters the fabric of our societal connection and unity.”

Tendler said he expects the discussion of race relations during the High Holidays, though he assumes that the coronavirus “will be a more dominant theme.”

He noted that race relations is a topic “that gets addressed from the pulpit already to some extent.”

Wernick defended having political undertones in his sermons, which he plans to do over the High Holidays, touching on issues such as equality, climate change and the U.S.-brokered peace agreement last month between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which he praised. That has just been followed by another Israeli agreement with Bahrain, announced by the White House on Friday.

Wernick noted that there is division “politically between those whose programs and platforms and attitudes and policies are [inimical] to what is in the Torah and what the rabbis have taught.”

He added that “our Judaism speaks to what should be done in the marketplace, in the personal life and world relations. Judaism isn’t something about you just put on tefillin and call yourself a Jew. Judaism is about having respect for the world and for other human beings.”

The High Holidays is an opportunity to address issues such as race relations, Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi and the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, told JNS.

“Being a religious leader includes being a moral leader. Jewish law and tradition teach us not only ritual practices, but also how to create a society that ensures equity and justice for everyone,” she said. “Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we consider how we and our communities have fallen short, and when there is a possibility of a new world emerging, is the perfect moment for rabbis to reach deep into our tradition for moral guidance to address racism and other sins that continue to plague this country.”

However, Rabbi Yechezkel Moskowitz, an Orthodox rabbi in New York, disagreed with Jacobs.

“Synagogues are a place where people want to connect with God to reflect on life and its meaning,” he told JNS. “I do not see how politics and things that seem to be highly contentious should be injected when much more important things are relevant to the day.”

Without addressing race relations and the election specifically, Hauer said that “the High Holidays are about introspection, reflection and setting goals for the coming year. In that vein, some rabbis focus on issues impacting individuals and families in their communities, while others discuss broader Jewish communal and national issues. In all cases, sermons should be an opportunity to elevate and unite the community around its cherished values.”

Nonetheless, Berman said, “looking back over the past year, we are not just looking at the challenges and difficulties, but also need to recognize the good and blessing in our lives.”

“Being thankful is an important lesson and a core secret … to lasting happiness,” he continued. “As we pray, we should find time to explore, recognize and appreciate the blessing in our lives. We need to find a way to approach this year with a spirit of thanks and find a way to find blessing even amidst challenges.”

Shira Stutman, a Reconstructionist rabbi who leads the non-denominational historic Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington, D.C., told JNS “one part of optimism is allowing yourself to be a little sad because otherwise, it’s disingenuous, and so I am optimistic that we will be able to get meaning out of this year’s High Holidays. But part of that is also about acknowledging the sadness of how different it’s going to look.”

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