As this odd High Holiday season lurches toward its end, upended traditions tossed to either side as it stomps onward, local rabbis have to deal with the last set of hurdles — how to deal with the last days of Sukkot — Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and the most challenging of all, Simchat Torah.
The question hits all rabbis of all synagogues, but it’s the hardest for Orthodox leaders, because their understanding of halacha does not allow for the use of any electronics. The set of tools that are available to other parts of the Jewish world are not available to them, so the issue of how to make people feel connected to tradition, the community, and each other, while remaining safe, looms even larger.
The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America have issued a set of guidelines for shuls as they ponder this question. Locally, rabbis are adapting the guidelines to their own specific circumstances; the fact that conditions change by region and by each shul’s specific demographics, architecture, and geography are part of the guideline’s assumptions.
Ezra Wiener is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck. His shul has taken down the tent that it had installed in the parking lot during the Yamim Noraim, he said, but there still is a minyan that meets there, and there are many backyard minyanim, both official and unofficial, as well.
One of the problems posed by Sukkot is how to stage the hoshanot, the processions that circle the shul. “In Rinat, it’s usually very crowded at Sukkot in the main shul. And the way the pews are set, it is packed, so in general we don’t have everyone walking around. It’s just too crowded. So it’s just the kohanim.”
So now, in backyard minyanim, when the hoshanot are only for small groups of men, “it’s the same feeling.”’ And because it’s outside, “in my experience it has been a little cold, but it’s very beautiful to be outside,” Rabbi Wiener said. “It’s actually very special.”
Each shul had the chance to figure out how best to have the Torah read, he said; in fact, every minyan did it a little bit differently. Again, demographics and geography are important. “I had four different experiences moving around to four different minyanim,” Rabbi Wiener said. “In one, people were called up for aliyot, but there was a Plexiglas barrier between the oleh and the reader. In some, they were side by side, in some one of them was off to the side. Some people are a little more cautious; sometimes it depends n the people who are there. It’s important to understand their sensitivities.”
There’s a minyan that’s spread over a few backyards, he said; that ensured adequate social distancing.
The minyanim have sifrei Torah — Torah scrolls — so it’s possible to do hoshanot, as well as to take it out of the ark and read from it, although each minyan removes it and reads it differently. It will allow for some form of rejoicing with it on Simchat Torah, although the ordinary joyous singing and dancing are out of the question now. Singing is a prime way to spread the coronavirus, and dancing violates social distancing.
Some people have their own sifrei Torah, Rabbi Wiener said; others have been able to borrow one from the shul.
There are also logistical problems posed by a minyan having only one Torah scroll rather than the normal two on Sukkot, because the maftir — the final Torah reading – is not the ending of the regular Torah reading. If there are two scrolls, there’s no problem — one can be rolled to open at one of the readings, and the other at the other one. But when there is only one scroll, it has to be rolled during the service. “That’s when the minyanim scheduled the drasha,” the sermon,” Rabbi Wiener said.
“Some of the things at the minyanim I’ve been to are standard,” he said. “The seats were set up with proper distancing. Everyone was asked to wear a mask. In one that I attended, there were announcements reminding everybody that if you have to blow your nose, please step out of the tent to do so. It was understood that being in a tent is not the same as being entirely outside.”
One of the OU’s suggestions for Simchat Torah is learning together as a replacement for the more physical celebrations that happen most years. “That really hit me and struck a chord in terms of sensitivity,” Rabbi Wiener said. “It was the understanding of how difficult this can be for children. The experience of kol hanearim — of children getting together around the Torah — at Rinat usually is very special and beautiful.” It’s also simply not possible this year.
Instead, however, “we can substitute a learning program for everybody.
“It’s a very meaningful way to experience the day — and it’s not new to Rinat, either.
“Because during the hakafot there usually is a shiur for women — some participate in their own hakafot, but there usually is a shiur taking place downstairs — there is an understanding that learning Torah is a way to celebrate the Torah.
“We are reminded at a time like this of what the strict halachot are and what is just customary. Maybe this is a time to strip away some of the beautiful customs and to realize what has to happen on this day. That can be consoling at a time like this.”
Elie Mischel is the rabbi of Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston. His Yom Noraim were even more complicated than he’d assumed they would be, because “an hour before Yom Kippur, we got an email” telling them that there had been an exposure to covid at Kushner, where most of the shul’s children, including some of his, go to school. “And our doctors went a level above in terms of stringency, so every family member also was banned from going to shul. Including the rabbi.
“So we had a family Neilah on the porch. It was very nice.”
His community “has what usually is considered a minus, but has been a plus,” Rabbi Mischel continued. “We are relatively small, and we have done better by virtue of being less dense. We have been very fortunate.”
As the level of infection in the community has started to rise, “starting immediately after Yom Kippur and into Sukkot we shifted into being outdoors again,” Rabbi Mischel said. “We have the tent – we’ll have it at least through the end of the holidays. There’s no heating – we are toughing it out. It was fine. We wore coats.”
Simchat Torah “will be very beautiful,” he said. “We have a boy whose bar mitzvah is coming up, so we will do a special teen service outdoors. It will include another boy who missed his bar mitzvah. He will be getting the main honor. So we are using Simchat Torah as a way of replacing the bar mitzvah that wasn’t.”
Like Rabbi Wiener, Rabbi Mischel is inspired by the OU guidelines’ suggestions about learning Torah. “We came up with the idea from one of the teachers — I am going to ask everyone who comes to the service in the tent to bring their favorite book of Torah with them. In Hebrew, in English, whatever, just your own favorite. I am a big believer in something that Rabbi Kook spoke about very eloquently, that each person connects to the Torah in a different way. We are all drawn to different things.
“If every one of us brings our own particular Torah — we will not be able to hold the scroll, we can’t dance together, holding hands, as we normally would, but for each of us to bring a book is even more beautiful. Simchat Torah isn’t as much about the study of Torah but the love and the joy of Torah.”
This is for both men and women, Rabbi Mischel said. “We encourage everyone to come. We will have at least five or six services in Livingston. It is a way of bringing everyone together.”
There’s one other aspect of the end of the holiday season that has to be reconsidered, he added; that’s Yizkor, traditionally said on Shemini Atzeret. “We feel that we need it,” he said. “It’s such a powerful, emotional time for so many people. But so many people now, particularly older people, are not going to services.” They don’t feel safe.
The answer his community has found is to “do it on Zoom, before the holiday.”
Some good may come out of all of this, despite the risks, Rabbi Mischel added. “One of the great fears that people in the Orthodox community have is that people won’t come back, but there are some beautiful things happening now.
“People who never were in charge are in charge now.” With so many backyard minyanim, with the need to ensure that groups stay small, there is an increased need for leaders. “It’s so atomized now, and we have to encourage that atomization.” Later, when the virus and its dangers have been overcome, “we will have to find a way to bring us all back together,” but the sense of ownership and leadership that this time has developed might well help reconstruct the community, Rabbi Mischel said.
The Orthodox Union’s guidelines are online at www.ou.org/covid19.