Six months of social distancing, on top of racial, economic and political turmoil, has many desperately wanting community, encouragement and spiritual nourishment this year. The virus has forced Jewish leaders to be creative in responding to that need.
Most Jewish communities in the Washington region are conservative about in-person gatherings, and the majority of synagogues remain closed, with beefed-up services online, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. A handful — especially those serving more traditionally observant Jews — have created intricate sign-up sheets and rented hotel courtyards and ballrooms to allow properly spaced, in-person groups.
Before the pandemic, Kol Ami Reconstructionist synagogue in Arlington hosted three prayer services a month. Now, operating via Zoom, congregants want more, and there are five services a week, said Rabbi Gilah Langner, who indicated that she is optimistic about online services for the holidays. Ohr Kodesh in Chevy Chase shifted from its usual few weeks of High Holiday programming to two full months.
“We started putting together a ‘design thinking’ approach,” said Hannah Olson, chair of the synagogue’s High Holiday Task Force, using a trendy term for inventors and consultants and others being open and user-centered in tackling problems. The task force found that people love the High Holidays — which end 10 days after Rosh Hashanah with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement — in part for the spontaneous interactions at synagogue with people they only see a few times a year.
“So how do we meet those needs? Let’s give people lots of opportunities to ‘run into’ someone,” Olson said of the daily emails Ohr Kodesh has been sending with a bit of scripture learning, cooking programs and games.
Many institutions have found new ways to share in the blowing of the shofar, the hollowed-out ram’s horn that is sounded on Rosh Hashanah, at the end of Yom Kippur, and every day at services during the month leading up to the holidays.
Some communities are teaching extra congregants how to blow the twisty, long horn so that people who want to hear it can do so in smaller groups. Some shofar blowers are also placing masks over the mouth of the shofar to limit the spray of germs. Others in D.C., Chicago, New York City and other spots have planned citywide shofar-blows (in D.C. it’s at 5 p.m. Friday) from rooftops, parks or front lawns.
Sometimes the shofar-hearing is virtual. That’s the case for students at Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville who choose to do their required morning prayers by Zoom. Each morning for a month, they have watched and listened to Chanokh Berenson, the science department chair, sounding the instrument from his Silver Spring apartment.
“It’s this sound of waking up and gathering together. There’s something poignant about that in a year when waking up is so particularly needed,” said Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the community relations council. “Inherent in the whole spirit of the high holidays is the humility of the fragility of life. And boy, has this been a year to remind us of that fragility.”
Some of the region’s Orthodox synagogues, which don’t permit the use of electronics or technology like Zoom on the Sabbath and holy days, are working hard to have some in-person services, spacing people out in sanctuaries or tents and holding multiple services a day to keep the numbers manageable.
With the number of members able to attend in person greatly reduced, Rabbi Nissan Antine, of Beth Sholom in Potomac, said he felt the distance from his congregation so profoundly that he personally baked 415 holiday challahs for synagogue members. The loaves were delivered to homes this week along with learning materials and prayer guides for the holiday.
Rabbi Herzel Kranz of the Silver Spring Jewish Center spent much of the last month calling local officials, trying without success for permission to allow more people to attend services, above the current Montgomery County limit of one participant or one household group for every 200 square feet of space. But Kranz said his activism has been unpopular with his own community, with many congregants choosing not to attend in-person services at the synagogue. He now has 60 or 70 people on a typical Sabbath, he said, mostly refugees from other synagogues that remain closed.
Kesher Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown, has been holding very small in-person prayer services since D.C. resumed allowing such gatherings. Since it owns no real backyard space, the synagogue is renting space at two nearby hotels for the holidays. Services will be shorter (about two or two-and-a-half hours instead of five hours), with no singing and all participants masked. Sermons were canceled in an effort to minimize people’s time together in person.
“I think the ‘Pikuach Nefesh’ have played out quite strongly through this," said Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky, rabbi in residence with the community relations council, using the term for the Jewish legal principle holding up the preservation of life above most everything else.
Rabbis of congregations where worshiping online during the holiday is permitted said Zoom in some ways provides a more intimate and meaningful experience than small, socially distanced in-person services.
“I could never see how meeting six feet apart with masks and not be able [to] sing well and worrying — how does that make your holiday good?" Langner said. “If you can’t sing and you can’t hug, what kind of high holidays is it?”
“In the start, we were like: ‘Zoom is terrible.’ Now people are like, ‘Wow, I see people’s faces right now! Not the back of their head?’ It was like: This is community.”
Synagogues don’t tithe; they raise money by membership dues and High Holiday tickets. But many are forgoing any charge for online services, or reducing the usual cost significantly.
For congregants, the decision of whether to log on for Rosh Hashanah services Friday night, Saturday or Sunday is only one of the adjustments for the holiday this year. Visits from family have been severely curtailed, holiday dinners with guests are safer if held outside, and college students are wary of returning home from campus for fear of bringing the coronavirus with them.
Joel Rubin, who was Jewish outreach director for former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, has three daughters and normally goes with his family to a synagogue in Northwest D.C. This year, he said, their holiday will be on Zoom. The family will eat a traditional “sweet year” food of apples and honey, say some blessings, fast on Yom Kippur, and, he predicts, have a “very individual” experience. He’s worried about the impact, especially for the many Jews who only connect with institutional Jewish life once or twice a year.
“These aren’t replaceable events. These are life experiences that are temporal,” Rubin said. “For me there’s a fear of a disconnect from the community. We’re holding on by our fingernails to the infrastructure that helps us to be able to practice and promote Judaism for us and our families. Maybe we can get away with it once.”
Stacey Karp, 47, who works in advocacy for public television stations and lives in Northwest D.C., is one of the many U.S. Jews who only goes to services on the High Holidays. She normally visits the Sixth & I synagogue in Chinatown and will do so this year — from home, online. Sixth & I serves many young people and singles, and Karp said she always feels a sense of community with hundreds of strangers who are joined in the same purpose: reflecting on the past year and the year to come.
When she will be watching from her couch, she said, she won’t dress up like she usually does. But she hopes to receive the same encouragement and perspective as she has in years past.
“This moment in our world where there is so much chaos and distress, from covid and racism and so many people dying from both of those issues — I’m really looking forward to hearing rabbi’s thoughts," Karp said. "It seems more important than ever. I’m hoping I can still have the same connection to the rabbi through the computer.”