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Pandemic has been a spiritual boon for some, and Rosh Hashanah 2021 shows what’s changed

Sarah Waxman blows a shofar during a virtual Rosh Chodesh gathering on Sept. 5. Waxman founded At The Well, a network of small groups that meet to discuss and implement ancient Jewish practices around the Jewish calendar. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

A earlier version of the caption with the top photo of this article misstated that the woman was playing a shofar. She was blowing a shofar. This article has been corrected.

Barrie Rein Thunemann was a spiritual seeker for decades, looking for a deep Jewish spirituality guided by socially liberal ethics. It took the pandemic for her to find it.

Thunemann, 52, once lived in an ashram — or spiritual retreat center — and years later tried to start a havurah, or lay-led Jewish community, outside Seattle. But logistics like commuting and the rush of parenting two kids got in the way of finding something that felt right.

Suddenly, in March 2020, Thunemann, a childbirth educator — she specializes in helping people who have had difficult birth experiences — was stuck at home, where life shrank and slowed. The circumstances proved fertile. Thunemann began connecting with Talmud study groups on Facebook; taking a course exploring 10th-century Jewish ethics on Zoom; stopping driving and using technology on the Sabbath and, perhaps most importantly, launching a small, monthly women’s group centered on the moon, the Jewish calendar and ancient Jewish beliefs about natural cycles and patterns. The Hebrew Bible establishes the Jewish calendar as based on the moon and calls for Jews to celebrate the new moon each month. The practice is called Rosh Chodesh (or “new month,” or “head of the month”).

“My spirituality has increased hundreds-fold because of the pandemic, because everything under the sun became accessible online. If it wasn’t for the pandemic I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to turn inward as much as I did and slow down,” she said, her voice breaking. “It helped me to prioritize the things that really were the most important to me in my heart. It changed my journey.”

For millions of Americans, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the course of their spiritual journeys. Some have shut off completely, questioning their faith beliefs and practices, while others have maintained a steady connection to their regular religious communities or routines, more often online than in person. Still others have dove into new, deep religiosities.

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For some Jews, the arrival this month of another Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the second time these holidays have been observed during the pandemic ― offers concrete evidence that this period has changed them.

Thunemann’s newfound focus on the cycles of the moon means a different way of observing Rosh Hashanah, which stretches from Monday at sundown to Wednesday and marks the beginning of the Jewish calendar year. It’s one of the most common times of the year when U.S. Jews attend synagogue. Going to services used to be the main way Thunemann observed the holiday, which calls for self-reflection, repentance and betterment. This year, her observance centers on her Rosh Chodesh women’s group, and she will virtually join a new synagogue, where she recently became a member, that focuses on meditation.

The group of eight spread across the western United States gathered Thursday on Zoom, where for 90 minutes they discussed the specific spiritual energy of the new month, called Tishrei, lit candles, and talked about how Judaism discusses infertility. They tied the topic to the holiday since the new year is a time when Jews are called to think more about their goals, and for some expanding their family is part of that.

Research about the impacts of the pandemic on religious and spiritual life in America is still evolving. At The Well, the D.C.-based group that organizes small Rosh Chodesh groups like Thunemann’s, found that the pandemic magnified interest in environmental-based spiritual practices that already existed. The number of women contacting the group since March 2020 has multiplied 30 times, said Sarah Waxman, At The Well’s founder and a member of a Rosh Chodesh group for more than five years. There are at least 230 “Well Circles” across the globe, she said, with the pandemic significantly expanding participants from mostly millennials to many women over 45.

“I never considered doing women’s circles online before the pandemic,” Waxman said. “I thought the richness of it and the energy of being together with other people meant you really needed to be together in person. I was wrong and blown away that you don’t need to do that. People are looking for spirituality, belonging and connection like never before.”

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During the pandemic Waxman saw some in-person circles disband because people moved, but then even more would come together as people became more open to doing it online. Some are just coming together in person this fall because of vaccinations and are marking Tishrei, the first month of the Jewish year, which includes Rosh Hashanah and means “new year” or “head of the year.”

Nicole Quallen, 37, a lawyer in Durham, N.C., couldn’t imagine what her monthly Well Circle would feel like online. Her group of about a dozen women started up in March 2019 with what she describes as an explosion of “wine and glitter and candles” all over the hostess’s house. “This circle is an embarrassment of specialness.”

Being together in person in a women-led, women-only group, connecting intensely through prayer and practices that are ancient, she said, is part of what helped her see how Judaism “can continue to be relevant and fruitful and alive and frankly female, feminine.”

The group had seen her through a divorce, through others’ marriages, miscarriages and fertility issues. When someone was going to give birth, “we’d wrap her in prayer and love and witchiness.”

But when the pandemic started and everything went online, giving up the group wasn’t an option, she said, even though she doesn’t like Zoom and doesn’t do it with other friends. Now online, they plan spiritual practices for the group and drop things off at one another’s homes to use during the circles, such as pastel crayons for coloring, face masks or copies of books to discuss.

“The digital circles were very comforting, especially when things were very scary and very isolated,” Quallen said.

The pandemic, she said, revealed to her that the Well Circle was not really an add-on to traditional things she’d done such as attend synagogue; it was her primary Jewish community.

When it comes to Rosh Hashanah, while in the past she would have attended synagogue services, this year she’ll probably take her two small daughters to an outdoor shofar-blowing event and on Sept. 12 mark the new year and new month with her Well Circle at a fireside discussion.

“During the pandemic the Rosh Chodesh group was a very special, safe, supportive place to continue to have spiritual connection and community,” she said. “After the pandemic some of the more traditional rabbi-congregation-based things will probably continue to be a part of my life in different seasons but the spiritual sustenance of the group feels more rich and immediately nourishing.”

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Kara McGee, who lives in Temecula, Calif., says the pandemic and being able to go online “was a game-changer” for her faith.

The Jewish community where she lives is very small, she said, and divided further among multiple synagogues. The period of the pandemic was also politically divisive, including at the school district where she works as risk management director. She was already comfortable with spiritual work online because she is studying for an adult bat mitzvah with a rabbi in Colorado, so when she heard about a totally virtual Rosh Chodesh group, she thought: “This is going to be Jewish, positive, and we aren’t going to talk about” petty disagreements like those she sometimes saw at her local synagogue.

She began attending a synagogue online in New York City and her bat mitzvah rabbi’s services in Denver. She also badly wanted something healing during the pandemic and always was drawn to spiritualities that were nature-based and women-centered.

The virtual At The Well circle she joined a year ago “is like oxygen. I don’t know if I could have done the pandemic without it.” She has started another one, in person, in Temecula.

McGee is also attending two Well groups and not attending synagogue for Rosh Hashanah. She also hopes to participate in one of the outside aspects of the holiday, such as a practice called Tashlich, which involves prayers and casting sins and apologies into a moving body of water in the form of breadcrumbs. And, of course, listening to the shofar being blown.

It’s not that traditional, in-person Jewish practices don’t hold meaning, she said. She recently attended a small bar mitzvah at a synagogue.

“It was emotional to be in front of the Torah again. And to hold it. I don’t think online will ever replace in person but it’s definitely supplementing it,” she said.