We’ve been living with this coronavirus pandemic for a long time now. It feels like forever, in its oddly timeless way, but in reality it’s been more than half a year.
It happened in the lumpen end of winter in the civil calendar, but it’s easier to trace in Jewish time. It started at Purim — some shuls went on with their Purimspeils and services, but most canceled their parties. Stores and offices started to close down around then.
Then there was spring — Pesach, with seders at small lonely tables or on Zoom and Shavuot, with no tikkun leil Shavuot except what could be downloaded at home — and then summer, where we could identity with the parched, desperate isolation of Tisha b’Av, and hope for the comfort that we hoped would follow.
(Not that we should forget Memorial Day and the Fourth of July and now Labor Day, civil holidays celebrating American virtues and the joys of barbecue, but now doubling as superspreader events.)
And how it’s Elul, and we’re heading into a new year. 5781. Rosh Hashanah is coming, and then Yom Kippur, and then Sukkot and Simchat Torah. It’s a time of year when the Jewish community comes together, in person; it’s a time when the individual self-examination of Elul moves into communal reflection and on toward the hope of redemption. It’s a time of deepened spirituality for the most devout among us, and it’s the time of year when twice-a-year Jews get their two days in.
None of that is possible now, at least in the ways that we’re most familiar with. So what do we do now?
Here, some local rabbis talk about their solutions. This is a far from exhaustive list — it’s more random than scientific — but it showcases the creativity and resolve the community displays. The range of choices is vast, and it’s bounded by the mandates of each part of the Jewish world. In the Orthodox community, governed by halacha — Jewish law — the use of electronics on holidays is not an option. In the Reform world, where halacha is seen as guidance rather than demand, technology is an exciting way to bring a physically separated community together. Conservative Jews find their way, one rabbi at a time, to decisions somewhere between those two poles.
Zev Goldberg is the rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and vice president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the Orthodox rabbinical association that’s taken the lead nationwide in demanding that the Jews in its shuls listen to science and act accordingly.
“My sense is that the RCBC shuls are offering a mixture of indoor and outdoor minyanim. They are strictly adhering to social distancing, and that means that the minyanim are smaller. And there will be much less singing. Those are the commonalities.” So is the demand that everyone who goes to shul have made reservations, so that the shul can control the numbers and be able to do contact tracing, should that be necessary.
People who have health conditions that would make it worse should they get covid-19 are advised to stay home, but the shuls leave it up to those people. “We do not want to be in the position of policing,” Rabbi Goldberg said. “The general decision to come to shul is left in the hands of the congregant, not of the synagogue.”
But every synagogue is making its own decisions, based on RCBC guidelines but adjusted for their own demographics, geography, and architecture. “We at the RCBC realized a little while ago that we were able to close the shuls down together, but opening them up again requires a great sensitivity to the individual community and congregation. It was more challenging to have a similar policy perspective for each step of the re-opening process.”
Rabbi Goldberg has found that many if not most of his congregants really do want to be in shul. “People miss shul,” he said. “We are doing the hard work in creating a safe environment, and we have people’s confidence. That doesn’t mean that everyone is coming. Some are choosing to sit it out. But there has been a strong response from our shul.
“Everyone understands that there is always an element of risk. But we are doing our best to be cautious and careful; with a mixture of prayer and prudence, we hope that this will be a meaningful and safe High Holiday experience.”
As for specifics, everyone will wear masks, and social distancing will be follow strictly. “We are offering three minyanim, two inside and out outside,” Rabbi Goldberg said; that’s for most but not all of the High Holy Day services. The two inside ones are staggered, and in different spaces; the HVAC system has been upgraded.
The shul also has worked to ensure that there is enough room for women as well as for men. “We have made a real effort to accommodate women, even though we are holding some services in spaces that do not easily hold a mechitzah.” But the shul has managed to install them and make it work.
“I’m feeling a mixture of intense gratitude to God that we can be back at shul and sadness that it will not be the regular High Holiday season that we know and love,” Rabbi Goldberg said.
“There has been some meaningful silver lining to this, in the refocusing on families, in the appreciation that smaller weddings and bar mitzvah celebrations can be just as if not more meaningful than larger ones. And there is an increased realization that going to shul is an honor and a pleasure. Those levels of appreciation have been born out of this pandemic.”
Daniel Fridman is the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, another modern Orthodox institution. His shul’s minyanim all will be outdoors; they’ll be small, and because there will be less singing and the sermons will be shorter than usual, the minyanim will take less time than usual. Everyone will be masked and social distancing will be observed; people who are likely to most affected by covid-19 are asked to stay home, but the choice will be up to them.
“Let us hope and pray for two things,” Rabbi Fridman said. “One, a speedy end to this horrific scourge. And two, that we all deeply reflect on the lives that we lead, and take steps to become less entitled. Let’s not take life for granted, health for granted, shul for granted, school for granted, weddings for granted.
“Let us recognize the things that truly matter, and the things that we would be better off without.”
Elchanan Weinbach is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Israel in Suffern. His smicha is from Yeshiva University; his shul is unaffiliated but “observant of Orthodox halacha within the building,” as he puts it. “So, like the rest of the Orthodox world, we are not broadcasting.”
Rabbi Weinbach will lead services inside the building, “but the sanctuary, which seats more than 600 people, will hold less than 100 people, socially distanced by family.”
It wasn’t a problem to hold the congregation down to such a small number of people, because many were not yet ready to come back to shul. “We will send kits with machzors and a yizkor book to congregants who aren’t planning to come to services, and the chazzan has recorded many parts of the service for people who might chose to prepare before the holidays,” Rabbi Weinbach said.
Services will be “significantly shortened”; reservations are required; four bathrooms will be opened and each will be cleaned after every use; there will be temperature checks; everyone must be masked.
Two of the most emotionally potent parts of the High Holy Day liturgy will be available online, however. “We will start an hour before sunset on erev Yom Kippur,” Rabbi Weinbach said. “We’ll do Yizkor, Kol Nidrei, and the sermon.” He’ll finish before sundown, when the filming will have to stop.
He’ll wait until a few minutes after sunset the next night for the closing lines of Neilah, which concludes with a final blast of the shofar; Yom Kippur will be over, so he will be able to broadcast that service too.
All of these Orthodox shuls, like every other shul that has any services in person, will curtail the shofar blowing — a task made easier because the first day of Rosh Hashanah is Shabbat, when it wouldn’t be blown anyway. The shofar blower will stand far away from everyone else, and in most cases will blow fewer blasts.
They all offer an extra shofar blowing in their parking lots, so that people who otherwise won’t go to services will be able to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the ram’s horn blown.
Joseph Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes. “We are taking what I believe is an unusual approach among Conservative congregations,” he said. “We will not be using Zoom or livestreaming on yomtov at all.”
Instead, “we will be holding abbreviated services outdoors, under canopies, overlooking the reservoir.
“That will be our primary venue, but we are going to Zoom Kol Nidrei before sunset, and Zoom Neilah 18 minutes after sunset.” He’s going to do Yizkor online on Thursday, the day before erev Rosh Hashanah, and then offer it again, in person, on Yom Kippur afternoon.
Services will be shortened, masked congregants will sit with their families, socially distanced from everyone else. Reservations are necessary, and everything will be sanitized between services.
The shofar blowing will be particularly dramatic this year, Rabbi Prouser said. Their shofar blower is capable of making such loud sounds “that he said that you could hear him from the other side of the reservoir.” That won’t be necessary — but he will stand “at some distance and blow the shofar from the woods.”
Rabbi Prouser accepts his movement’s decision to allow technology, but not for his shul. “Without casting judgment on anyone else’s decision, I am convinced that the halachic justifications for using technology on yomtov are unconvincing,” he said.
(The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards wrote a densely argued 34-page decision on allowing the use of technology on Shabbat and holidays; it was accepted by the majority of the committee. Although it put limits on the kinds of technology that are acceptable, and the ways in which it can be used, it found that at least for now, the human need for community and the dangers of isolation are even more important than the requirement not to use technology.)
“Separating ourselves from technology, divesting ourselves from it on Shabbat and holidays, is an absolutely critical part of the holiday experience and Jewish religious practice,” Rabbi Prouser said. “I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, even if the bathwater is the source of contagion.
“I have many jobs that I have to do over the holidays. One is to provide a meaningful spiritual experience to the community, and another is to connect them to the normative historic task of Jewish tradition.
“I think that the combination of safe, abbreviated outdoor services in the flesh is the best way that I can discharge both those responsibilities.”
Ariel Russo is the rabbi of Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack; it’s Conservative. “We are having virtual services for most, and accommodating a small group in the synagogue,” she said. “We have updated our HVAC system; we put in screen so we can open the windows; all the seats are 12 feet apart, in pods; we have a touchless thermometer for when you come in.
“We have five places set up with Plexiglas; two podiums on the bimah, a reader’s table on the floor, and two for the limited honors we have.”
Behind the scenes, a non-Jewish technician will help with the livestream. “It’ll be up and running,” Rabbi Russo said, so the halachic problem of having to turn it on is avoided.
Because so many people won’t be able to go to Yizkor, “it was important to have a Yizkor booklet, so we can hold each other in our grief.” She asked congregants to write about the people for they mourn, and to include photos. The book can be downloaded and printed.
Rabbi Russo realized that there would be far fewer honors than usual to distribute this year, so instead “I asked congregants if they would write their own kavanot, that I would share in their name. It’s a way for their voices to be heard, and for them to be connected and honored.”
The kavanot are personal and beautiful; each is as different from all the others as each person is a different from every other person.
Rabbi Russo was able to make these and many other changes because the shul’s members have a great deal of expertise — in medicine, in science, in technology, in construction, in logistics — and offered it open-heartedly.
“I am so inspired by my lay leadership, who have stepped up in incredible ways to make this work, in a time when when wouldn’t have been able to open without them,” Rabbi Russo said. “I also am inspired by the willingness of the congregation to work with us as we reimagine what these High Holidays can look like.”
David-Seth Kirshner is the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Closter.
“We are doing hybrid services,” Rabbi Kirshner said. His shul, which is Conservative, is a beautiful building in a lovely setting; it’s a popular place for weddings in non-covid times. It includes a courtyard. So, “we are having hybrid services, live in the courtyard” and also livestreamed.
“We are limited to 125 people, so we will have multiples of these services to accommodate growing needs.” It’ll be like the Delta shuttle used to be; increased demand will be met with increased supply.
As is true everywhere, participants will have to pre-register; they will sit in family pods, socially distanced from everyone else, wearing masks.
“The services will be highly truncated,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “In addition to that, we have invested heavily in a serious high-level production company that will make a series television-like presentation of the exact same holiday services.
“The majority of our congregation told us that they plan on joining us virtually,” he added.
He is not bothered by halachic arguments against technology. “Most of halacha was written in a time when they didn’t have wifi and iPads and they didn’t have the medicine that we have.
“We have used all the elasticity that Judaism provides. We’ve had to make some difficult choices, and we have erred on the side of trying to meet people where their needs are, more than what we think an ancient law was about.
“When you are up against a scenario where you have to chose not to bring Judaism to people who need it, or you can stretch the letter of the law to meet them, I fall into that second group. I know that I am breaking some laws to meet them, but I’m okay with it.”
Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine also is Conservative; he heads Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood.
His shul will hold services outdoors, in a pavilion, so it’ll be sheltered from the sun but there will be no walls. “We will have our four major services there — both morning of Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidrei, and Yom Kippur morning,” he said. “Services will be two hours long, everyone will wear masks, and family units will sit together, spaced out by six feet.” The congregation will observe all state and CDC mandates and guidelines. The services are by reservation only, and they’ve already sold out. Erev Rosh Hashanah and Neilah services will be outdoors at the shul.
Rabbi Fine will do all the Torah reading himself. “I know that some people are experimenting with aliyot by Zoom, from a distance, but my feeling is that you have to be there,” he said. “You have to be at the Torah. Otherwise it’s like making a motzi without challah.” He’ll also do all the singing, which is easy because the shul doesn’t have a cantor.
Rabbi Fine will Zoom Pesukei D’zimrah and Shacharit from the shul, on Zoom; he’ll leave an hour between that and the Torah service to allow congregants to get to the outdoor service. He’ll do musaf outside as well. On Sunday, the shofar blower will face away from the congregants.
He thinks that there will be real value in holding services outside, deep in nature. “We’ve been doing outside services on Friday night since the middle of July,” he said. “People were so happy with that. They also said that they feel comfortable being outside in a way that they wouldn’t be comfortable indoors.” So he and his staff and lay leaders started thinking about options; they considered renting a tent, “but there are logistical problems to having a huge tent in a parking lot, and anyway restaurants already have bought just about every tent.”
The idea to move further into nature, and to find a facility with a pavilion, came from the shul’s educational director, Jessica Spiegel, “who has a lot of experience with Jewish camping and experiential Jewish education,” Rabbi Fine said. So they did.
“It is exactly what people need,” he continued. “We’ve been isolated from the world for half a year. The whole point of Rosh Hashanah is that we are supposed to hear the shofar and wake up to a new breath of life. To be able to do it outdoors — that is what Rosh Hashanah is about.
“It is the birthday of the world.”
Rabbi Fine teaches at two rabbinical seminaries at the University of Potsdam, in Germany — Abraham Geiger College and Zacharias Frankel College — so he spends a lot of time in Europe. “We are so alienated from nature,” he said. “Europeans spend a lot more time outside than we do. They eat outside all the time. During the winter, every restaurant has a heat lamp, and a blanket on every chair, and you sit down and enjoy your meal.
“They love the fresh air. They have a higher tolerance for heat. They sweat, and they deal with it. And they sit in the cold, and they deal with it.
“I think that this is a positive change” — “this” is outdoor services. “Our bodies can manage the different temperatures. We can manage being outside for a couple of hours. I hope that outdoor seating continues beyond the pandemic.
“Rosh Hashanah is the rebirth of the world,” Rabbi Fine concluded. “This brings us back to the beginning. To the breath of life. If we want another year of life, we have to appreciate the world.”
Debra Orenstein, a Conservative rabbi, leads Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson. “We made the decision to do almost everything virtually,” she said. “We will only do tashlich and and shofar blowing outdoors.
“Of course it is disappointing. People prefer being together; there is something powerful as you see everyone stream into the building. But we decided that for life and for health, this is the right thing to do.”
Rabbi Orenstein’s husband, Craig Weisz, is a photographer and film producer; he’s been able to provide the expertise that allows the shul to make videos and livestreams that provide the majestic moments the community craves.
“There are a lot of limits to technology, but a lot that opens up,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “One example — on Kol Nidrei night, we have a tradition of inviting all past president to the bimah, and they take turns holding the Torah. It’s a lovely tradition.”
This year, the shul’s cantor, Lenny Mandel, will sing Kol Nidrei three times, as always, but “the first time it’s filmed in advance. He was outside in the woods. It creates a feeling almost as if you are eavesdropping on a chasidic rabbi. It is beautiful and intimate.
“Instead of having the presidents come on the bimah this year, which wouldn’t be safe, we asked for their photos. The second time the cantor sings Kol Nidrei, we will see their faces, in the order of their presidencies. You will be able to see them far more clearly than even if you were sitting in one of the first few rows.
“Technology allows us to create a level of intimacy that otherwise you wouldn’t have.”
The third time he sings Kol Nidrei, Cantor Mandel will be in the shul. It will be filmed live. “There will be the experience of being in the sanctuary in the moment,” Rabbi Orenstein said.
She and Cantor Mandel usually change the regular Torah mantles, with their bright colors, for the white ones they wear during the holidays, as the congregation watches. This year, that was impossible; instead, they were filmed doing that, and the resulting video was set to music and edited to showcase the intimacy and the power of that change.
Instead of honors, Rabbi Orenstein wrote out some of the small commentaries that she usually delivers during services and asked congregants to read them aloud. They’ll be spliced into the service. The Torah will be read from volunteers’ homes; she sent each of them a yad — she bought 16 of them — so the diversity of their homes will be linked by those yads.
One thing that has surprised and deeply pleased Rabbi Orenstein is “all the people stepping up, and the level of those volunteers’ dedication, and the time they give. It has been stunning. All sorts of people, with all sorts of skills — technology, filming, editing, hiring tech people.
“There had been so much going on that had become systemized and relatively easy. It all went out the window.
“You don’t know what everyone in your synagogue does for a living, and it is amazing. All the things that we need to make the service interesting and keep people connected – they have. That’s the bottom line. We could all stay home separately with our machzors – but the goal is to keep us all connected.”
Noah Fabricant is the rabbi of Kol Dorot: A Reform Jewish Community in Washington Township. It’s the shul formed last year with the merger of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter and Temple Beth Or in Washington Township. “We have an interesting challenge, because in addition to the challenge that everyone is facing, of not being able to gather in person, we also have a building that still is under construction. So I do not have a synagogue building or sanctuary from which to record or livestream.
“So we are offering a variety of experiences. Our main services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur morning and Kol Nidrei are going to be prerecorded and livestreamed, and also broadcast on public television.” (It’ll be on Oradell public television, OPTV.)
“That was a really important thing,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “Most people’s homes are set up for them to sit comfortably to watch television, not to sit in front of their computer screens all day. It’s a more reasonable ask for them to be engaged in a multi-hour service experience on television.
He asked some congregants to record themselves as they received honors from the synagogue; he also worked with a congregant who is a video production professional. “I’m editing it myself,” he said. “Since this started, I have been making a lot of videos. One of the things I’ve had to learn is how to edit; this is like my final exam in video editing.”
Some of the shul’s services will be prerecorded; others will be on Zoom. “The problem with prerecording and broadcasting is that it is not interactive, and people can’t see each other in real time,” he said. “So you don’t get the feeling of being part of a large group of people. We did want to do some experiences on Zoom.” Those experiences include “our festival blessings, early in the evening, on erev Rosh Hashanah; candles and blessing as songs.
“We also have put together a Rosh Hashanah seder, for later that evening. We’ve never done it before, but our Zoom Passover seder was very successful. It gave me the idea, and I’m very excited abut it.”
Kids’ services also will be on Zoom, and Neilah will be as well.
Kol Dorot also will offer outdoor in-person family services, with masks and social distancing, in a park.
“As a rabbi, these holidays are very demanding,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “It’s demanding very different kinds of effort. The intense time and focus that normally I would devote to sermons has shifted largely to video editing and creating online experiences.
“I am still giving sermons, but they will be very different. I think that the 12- to 18-minute stand-up sermon is not appropriate for this year. An online service gives us the opportunity to be more creative. We can use images, we can use video, we can use editing to get our message across in a different way. I am not going to give traditional sermons, but I expect to do as much teaching as in other years.
“As much as we feel the urgency of the moment, I am feeling very strongly that people need something else from the holidays. We need some inspiration. We need to be uplifted this year much more than we need to be scolded, or even called to action. Many of us are grieving the scope of loss in our community. And it is staggering. It’s not just people who have experienced death, but also economic losses, disappointment about canceled events, and fears for the future.
“I hope to recapture some of the feeling of the early days of the quarantine. Then, people recognized the need to be together and to engage in ritual, and they were very forgiving of the challenges of technology. There was a real spirit of generosity. I hope that during the High Holy Days, we are going to have some of that same feeling again — the feeling that we are all in this together.”
Brian Leiken is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in New City; it’s Reform.
He’s excited about the High Holiday services he’s planned. “We are very fortunate to have a member of our community who has spent his career as a cameraman for NBC Sports and WWE,” he said. That’s Howie Zales, who now has his own production company, HJZ Productions; it’s thanks to Mr. Zales that we’ve seen the video of President Donald Trump having a visibly hard time walking down the ramp at West Point earlier in the summer. Mr. Zales filmed it.
Mr. Zales has worked with Rabbi Leiken. “I had the idea that the holidays this year really had to take advantage of technology,” Rabbi Leiken said. “I want to bring people a service that that would work for them in their homes, because it will not be the same service if you are sitting in your home, watching an empty sanctuary. I realized that I have a unique opportunity to bring different locations and different people to my community, and that can emphasize the themes of the holidays in new ways.”
He’s used “what’s called switching software, which allows you to move from live to recorded pieces,” he said. “Basically, our holidays will look very similar in form — albeit not in content — from the DNC convention,” which made those shifts from prerecorded to live throughout its four days. “We have spent the summer recording. We have had congregants come to the parking lot and record blessings and prayers and readings. We have used a drone to get images of the synagogue from high up.
“The opening of Yom Kippur morning will be from Nyack Hospital, which was Ground Zero for the pandemic in Rockland. The day’s theme is mortality, and that it means to face mortality.
“For Kol Nidrei, we went to Battery Park City, right near the Statue of Liberty. We are talking about history and memory. We brought a cellist there, and he played Kol Nidrei.
“It was a little strange, with all the joggers…” he added.
About 60 percent of the services over the holidays will be streamed live, “led from the sanctuary, with the cantor and me acting as hosts.” There’s also a choir; members have been filmed individually but their voices will be combined through the magic of technology.
“There are other things as well; the point of al of this is to recognize that this moment gives us a unique opportunity to engage our community in ways that they never have been engaged before. Instead of just livestreaming a service that people can’t be at, we really decided to try something new.”
Unlike the other synagogues whose online services we’ve mentioned, Rabbi Leiken’s are open to nonmembers, “but there is a suggested donation,” he said. It’s mainly for the community.
In fact, “we feel that the synagogue is more needed than ever,” he said. “The community is more needed than ever. This is a time for us to show up. So many people are worried about the future of Judaism, and about the future of organized religion as a whole.
“The trends are being exacerbated by the pandemic, but the truth is that the search for meaning that our tradition is supposed to be about is more relevant today than it ever has been, and this is our opportunity to remind our entire community of that.”