Thursday, 22 Oct 2020 - 4 of Heshvan, 5781

Synagogues grapple with putting changes in place for High Holiday services

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Some will spread out congregants for social distancing, some will go ahead with abbreviated prayer sessions, and some will arrange for online programs, keeping folks at home.

By Faygie Holt, JNS

As fall arrives and the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the United States, prayers are very much needed, say rabbis across the Jewish spectrum, even if individuals and families cannot make it to synagogue to herald in the new year, 5781.

“This is a time when the true focus of prayer and the need for prayer is more intense than ever,” said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. “The prayers of the High Holidays always carry with it a certain level of urgency, it is just underscored and that much stronger this year.”

As more liberal Jews groups intend to utilize online platforms to stream services and shofar blowing, Orthodox congregations, which do not use electronic media on Shabbat or major holidays, are scrambling to ensure that as many people who want to come to holiday services can do so while they continue to meet local and state health guidelines.

For many congregations, that means splitting the members into different prayer groups, sometimes in different locations, and lining up additional people to lead the various services. In many cases, to make these accommodations work, parts of the service may look a bit different.

“We normally have 300 people reserve every year for the High Holidays,” said Rabbi Yaakov Robinson, leader of Beis Medrash Mikor HaChaim in Chicago. “We cannot legally or safely accommodate that number in our building. We will likely be building a tent and have two minyanim [prayer services]simultaneously, one indoors and one outdoors.”

While some people may automatically ask for a certain number of seats every year, he said, now they are asking congregants “to really think through if they will be coming to services and if they are taking a seat.”

Robinson, who is also the executive director of Agudath Israel of America’s Midwest Rabbinic Council, said other congregations are having similar discussions. “People are looking at area Jewish community centers, at local schools that won’t be in session, and trying to find spaces they can use because in maintaining social distancing, you end up losing about half your [regular]space.”

‘The core elements will be there’

One large Modern Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, N.J., will offer five different services within its building and an additional eight outdoor services, including some at area homes.

In its mailing to members, the congregation listed the run time for each service (ranging for two to nearly four hours), as well as the number of people each service can accommodate—anywhere from 50 to 100.

Like at many other synagogues, no children will be allowed at services. How a synagogue defines a “child” varies by congregation with some only allowing those over b’nai mitzvah to attend.

With the creation of additional prayer services comes an increased need for qualified people to lead prayers in those services. To that end, the OU is offering a “Ba’alei Tefillah Boot Camp” to do just that; a Ba’alei Tefillah is similar to the role of cantor. More than 50 synagogues representing congregations throughout the United States, as well as Canada and South Africa, are participating.

Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah services traditionally run upwards of five hours at Modern Orthodox congregations and longer at haredi synagogues. This creates concerns about how long people will be congregating in one space, particularly if indoors. It also creates logistical concerns for synagogues that because of COVID need to have back-to-back prayers services to accommodate their congregants.

To that end, some synagogues are undertaking measures to shorten the prayer time.

For instance, some synagogues, particularly Modern Orthodox shuls, under the guidance of leadership from Yeshiva University, will be cutting back on the number of piyyutim (poems) recited in the service. These are not obligatory prayers, and so organizers feel that in the interest of the health of congregants they not be said this year.

Other synagogues are asking members to recite certain prayers at, trimming back on in-person singing of prayers, speeches or simply trying to go a bit faster than usual. Similar changes will be made for Yom Kippur; however, the services will still be longer, as there are more requirements during the Day of Atonement.

“The service will be there and the core elements of the service will be there,” said Hauer, adding that “the one thing we have encouraged is that whatever changes we make, we have to make sure the experience of prayer on Rosh Hashanah still has a real soul.

“We have to just be agile and flexible and find a way to do it in our changed circumstances. And just as our communities have been agile and flexible for the last five months and doing amazing things and rising up to the challenge, I don’t think Rosh Hashanah will be any different.”

Robinson said many of the Agudah-affiliated shuls are not planning to cut out any part of the service, although he understands why others are. “My feeling is that we’ve been in shul since Shavuot, and in Chicago, there has only been one case of [COVID] spread. And after the year, we’ve had people say they want to have the full authentic davening and connect to G-d that way. … We will move things along; speeches will be a little shorter and a little less singing because people will be wearing masks.”

‘We have to bring the shul to them’

While some may grumble about the rules and restrictions, research suggests that all of these changes will be welcome. In a Pew Research Center survey of adults in the United States, 79 percent of Americans and 80 percent of Jews say that houses of worship should follow the same rules about social distancing as other organizations and businesses in their region.

The survey also found while more than 60 percent of people who regularly attend religious services would feel confident about attending services, only about 12 percent had actually done so in the month preceding the mid-July survey.

Knowing that not everyone is ready to come back inside to services, especially during the High Holidays when sanctuaries usually filled to capacity make social distancing almost impossible, many, synagogues in the Reform and Conservative movements will be hosting services online. Some congregations will be “broadcasting” the services led by their rabbis and cantors directly from their sanctuaries to give members a sense of comfort and camaraderie. (Some will arrange that prior to the start of the holiday so that the set-up is in place beforehand.)

For those who can’t make it to shul, Hauer said it’s incumbent on the community to make sure they are cared for.

“If they are not coming to shul on Rosh Hashanah, it’s part of a broader challenge of isolation they’ve had at this time. … We have to bring the shul to them, and in as meaningful a way as possible so they are included in the community and not forgotten because they are out of sight.”

Among Hauer’s suggestions are ensuring that those individuals have a holiday prayer book, traditional holiday foods and are included in plans for shofar-blowing.  (For more information, see “Shofar: A Love Song.”)

A number of synagogues around the country are doing just that. For example, Brith Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Bellaire, Texas, is having a machzor pickup for its members so they can participate in Zoom services. Each family will get a prayer book and a “New Year Goody Bag,” with apples, honey and challah rolls.

Added Robinson, “You are judged on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by doing the ratzon [‘will’] of God. It’s like speaking the love languages—you have to love your partner the way they want to be loved, not how you want them to be. For whatever reason, God deemed it not safe for you to be shul, and he wants you to daven from home.”

At the end of the day, said Hauer, “I think it will be different than last Rosh Hashanah, but no different than the creativity congregations have shown over the last five months.”


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