Preparing for the High Holy Days in Pandemic Times

Clergy are making plans to ensure the High Holy Days are unique and engaging at a time when people are yearning for connection.
August 26, 2020

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down everything in mid-March, the Jewish community found ways to navigate life-cycle events and holidays — from Passover to b’nai mitzvahs, weddings to funerals. Clergy worked hard to connect with congregants by bringing spirituality directly into living rooms when meeting in synagogues was no longer possible. However, in the background, the question always loomed: how to navigate the High Holy Days — the largest and most important Jewish holidays of the year — if the pandemic persisted.  

There are at least 100 synagogues and congregations in the Greater Los Angeles area and all are making plans not only to create meaningful High Holy Days, but to ensure services are unique and engaging at a time when now, more than ever, people are yearning for connection.

“I always get myself in trouble around the country by telling everybody that the greatest rabbis in the world are in Los Angeles,” Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President and CEO Jay Sanderson said during a virtual panel about the High Holy Days on Aug. 18. During that conversation with rabbis from different denominations, Sanderson said he felt confident that although things would be different because of the pandemic, L.A. Jews would be in good hands.

Virtual opportunities and digital resources

Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Nefesh never imagined celebrating a full year of her community’s existence during a pandemic. Noting she has experienced “waves of” creativity and “deep sorrow” during High Holy Days preparations, Goldberg told the Journal, “Our people [in the past] have had to bring in these Holy Days in all kinds of situations, so it’s not like we are the first who have to figure out how to do it in a plague. We can do this.” She added that this moment provides the opportunity for out-of-the-box programming. 

The Silver Lake-based congregation, like many other congregations, will offer virtual condensed services, but celebrate them from a remote production space, which will allow clergy to simultaneously socially distance, perform and live-stream.

Synagogues and congregations are making plans not only to create meaningful High Holy Days, but to ensure services are unique and engaging at a time when now, more than ever,  people are yearning for connection.

Nashuva Rabbi Naomi Levy said she knew in March that High Holy Days services wouldn’t be in person. She told the Journal that not only will Rosh Hashanah be virtual — a combination of live and prerecorded content — but “Kol Nidre Live,” Nashuva’s annual streaming of the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, which has taken place for the past 15 years and draws thousands of people, will continue this year. 

“The first thing I saw in the first year [we did Kol Nidre Live] was the people we were helping: the people who were homebound, with disabilities, people in the hospital, people in hospice who needed this service and were getting it. We are all in that position this year,” Levy said.

Taking it one step further this year, Levy will use her experience writing poetry and prayers about the pandemic and moments of unrest to launch the website, OneYomKippur. One unexpected blessing she said, is the level of intimacy there will be between the congregants and the clergy because this year, “they’re going to be in my home and I’m going to be in theirs. It’s a very intimate thing. It can also be a comfort.”

“We have to rethink everything,” Adat Ari El Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard said. Together with his team in Valley Village, he is learning how to safely prerecord audio and video services in the main sanctuary. “If we are prerecording services and [minimizing] the number of people who are in the sanctuary, how do you take the Torah out of the ark? How do you do hagbah and gelilah? (lifting and carrying the Torah). You can work these things out. We haven’t had to think about how to do [them] in decades.”

“The first thing I saw in the first year [we did Kol Nidre Live] was the people we were helping: the people who were homebound, with disabilities, people in the hospital, people in hospice who needed this service and were getting it. We are all in that position this year.” — Rabbi Naomi Levy 

With many universities around the country going virtual for the fall semester, Rabbi Sandra Lawson said plans at Elon University in North Carolina where she teaches, are changing constantly as a result of the pandemic. As such, she is working on ways to provide fun, short and meaningful virtual services and outside experiences for her Hillel students.

Since many students live in communities where virtual services will be available, Lawson said they are trying to create socially distant and virtual watch parties, “so students can connect. Whatever plan we have, it needs to be adaptable. One thing I think is really cool is that I’m more connected to clergy across the spectrum because we’re all having the same challenges,” she added. “We’re all sharing our best practices. Community is so important. I can’t just say, ‘We’re not doing anything.’ We have to figure it out.” 

Virtual musical performances

Because the coronavirus can be spread through singing, many congregations are doing away with their choirs for the High Holy Days and reimagining music. Cantors are turning to prerecorded and individual live performances so the rich and uplifting melodies that make the High Holy Days special won’t be sacrificed.

Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) Director Rabbi Daniel Bouskila was initially disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to put on SEC’s annual Selichot concert. Bouskila said because Sephardic Selichot is celebrated for longer and the music is more energetic than Ashkenazi Selichot observances, 300-400 people usually attend the L.A. SEC celebration filled with local Sephardic cantors and musicians performing together. This year, for the first time in 10 years, they are making the concert a virtual experience. It will be performed live from the SEC in Jerusalem with Israeli cantors and musicians. “Whether it’s going to be a virtual livestream or a prerecorded concert we don’t know yet,” Bouskila said, “but it’s really unique and really cool.”

And at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, musical director Stephanie Streja and Cantor David Shukiar are hard at work rehearsing virtually with their 23-member Adat Elohim Chorale and nine-member band to produce prerecorded High Holy Days videos. Streja worked with the musicians and singers to ensure everyone used the technology correctly for a professional mix. She said Shukiar spent countless hours teaching himself how to edit more than 20 audio and video tracks to create a cohesive finished product.

Stephanie Streja and the Adat Elohim Chorale virtually rehearsing. Photo courtesy of Streja.

“I wish we had been filming a documentary throughout,” Streja told the Journal. “We have managed to find a way to share our prayer through music with our congregation. The choir sings 180 pieces of music throughout the course of the [High Holy Days] services. That clearly wasn’t [going to happen this year]. We came out thinking we were going to try to make three [pieces]. The miracle of it all [is that] by the end of this summer, we will have completed 13.” 

Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA) cantorial student Jenni Asher’s ability to chant prayers and play instruments has made her extremely valuable this year. She has produced High Holy Days videos performing music on the viola, violin and cello for Shomrei Torah, Temple Judea, Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Temple Beth Am’s services. She said to date, 80% of her cantorial tracks have been for instruments while only 20% have been for voice.

“If you mess up the audio, you have to redo the audio and video,” she said, adding that she’s thinking about pursuing a career as a “freelance cantor” after surviving this pandemic High Holy Days. “I love recording, though, so I’m used to the ‘get it right or go home’ approach,” she said. “I’ve been through all the challenges.” She’s also performing for the Pico Union Project (PUP) in downtown Los Angeles. 

(Video courtesy of Craig Taubman)

And PUP’S founder and Artistic Director Craig Taubman, knows that not everyone is technically savvy or can afford the time and finances to produce and record albums or spiritual content. That’s why he created 40holydays.org. The website allows any congregation free access to 40 High Holy Days songs and prayers submitted from different singers, musicians, poets, artists and clergy from around the country. 

“I call it elevating the praying field,” Taubman said. “During this hard time, [congregations] can come together and share the greatest resources possible, and rabbis can pick and choose how they want to supplement their services.”

(Video courtesy of Craig Taubman)

Chazan Hillel Tigay at IKAR also is attempting to reimagine musical moments with his davening team by performing prayers live with an array of instruments, including the middle eastern sav and Turkish cumbus (banjo and string-like instruments) and Sephardic melodies during the live virtual services.

“At times, our High Holiday services can feel like a festival or even like Woodstock in that people aren’t just watching an act perform but rather participating in the service,” Tigay said. “Singing along, swaying, dancing, meditating — they’re all as integral a part of the prayer as the clergy. We’re all like a big instrument; an organ with lots of different keys. And every one of [those] keys is different and equally important.”

While he will miss the improvisation that usually happens during live services, Tigay said he’s grown “to find a different way of bringing meaning to the songs that we love.” He created, “Judeo Volume II,” an album that features spiritual music for congregants to take uplifting prayer with them wherever they go. Some of the melodies are familiar and some are newer, to reflect the themes of the High Holy Days. The album also will be mailed out together with face masks and machzorim IKAR is supplying its congregants.

“We as a community at IKAR decided to bring as much tangible material as we could,” he said. “We wanted people to make up for the loss of not being in the same room together.”

Tangible or close to it 

Some of the most meaningful High Holy Days moments will be absent this year. There’s no touching the Torah, hugging a loved one, dancing around the synagogue or even gathering with the community for a meal after services or for the Yom Kippur break-fast, but clergy have come up with innovative ways to bring tangible elements to people’s homes. 

Taubman is continuing his 15-year Jewels of Elul project with COVID-19 modifications. In addition to sending words of wisdom from leaders in the community to anyone who subscribes to the email list, he’s also sending mini “jewels” — cards with prayers inside — for people to hold close.

The Jewels of Elul project. Photo by Craig Taubman

“There is something very special about holding something in your hand, or the bag of jewels,” he said. “It’s tangible; it’s physical. It’s no secret that that’s what people are thirsting for in this moment. I haven’t hugged my mom or dad in five months. Any way a congregation can physically transfer something to their community would be very valuable.”

Another way congregations are bringing the tangible to their communities is through food deliveries. Nefesh, Temple Isaiah, IKAR, Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock and many others will be sending holiday goody bags to their members.

Rabbi Dara Frimmer of Temple Isaiah said that on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the shul would typically host a shared Sephardic meal experience. While she admitted that sending out food boxes or menus isn’t “original,” she said she knows the importance it holds as a communal ritual.

“We are working with one or two restaurants in the Los Angeles area to create a sense of shared food, so if you wanted to order dinner and feel you were sharing the same meal as other Isaiahns, there is a way to not only do the ritual together as well as share the same menu. It won’t be this way forever, but now we have new pathways we can explore together.”

Goldberg said Nefesh is sending organic boxes from a local farmer in Altadena filled with apples and honey among other sweet treats to ring in 5781. The box will also include a High Holy Days machzor.

Inspired by Los Angeles Unified School District staff who did a drive-by for her daughter so she could meet her teachers, Goldberg said she is pondering the idea of a drive-by so she can connect with her congregants. It will be the closest thing to human contact she’s had with her “kin” in months.

“We as a community at IKAR decided to bring as much tangible material as we could. We wanted people to make up for the loss of not being in the same room together.” — Chazan Hillel Tigay 

Among the most intimate services during the High Holy Days where tangible connection draws even many of the most nonobservant to synagogue, is the Yom Kippur Yizkor memorial service. To help fulfill that need for communal mourning, clergy also have come up with ways to facilitate this. 

“In shul, I often feel rushed, disconnected, self-conscious — feeling too embarrassed to outwardly display grief,” Adat Ari El’s Rabbi Jessica Yarkin told the Journal in an email. Because congregants will be in their homes, she is creating a Yizkor workshop where families can mourn the loss of loved ones together while using their space for intimate conversation and comfort. “For those saying Yizkor who have non-Yizkor family or friends sharing the same house, even in the same room … have them stay, especially if they are children,” Yarkin urged. She is encouraging families to share memories, ask questions and share a “trinket — something they made, something they loved [and] bring that into your prayer space.”

Understanding this is a difficult yet essential time to grieve, Rabbi Sharon Brous and her team at IKAR aim to make Yizkor an emotional experience by curating a Yizkor wall, which will be posted outside IKAR’s new office and event space.  IKAR is collaborating with a local artist and congregants have been asked to send in photos and memories of their loved ones. Mixing technology with the tangible moments of the High Holy Days experience, Brous told the Journal that while she has aimed to make IKAR an environment to leave technology behind in order to connect, she sees the irony now in relying on it as a means to engage.

“The weight of this year is really profound,” she said. “It’s forced us to be more creative than we’ve been because things have been so restrictive. What new thing needs to be born? We are thinking more artfully on how to hold memory and how to create spiritual encounters.”

One of those ways, Brous revealed, will be a citywide shofar wave in partnership with the Jewish Federation, where families can line up and down their streets and sound their shofars one after the other. “It feels like an obvious way for the various layers of Jewish community in Los Angeles to do this together,” she said.

Call to action

From pandemics to protests to a presidential election year, many synagogues believe there is too much at stake this year and do not intend to leave politics outside the shul doors these High Holy Days. 

IKAR Rabbi David Kasher helped create a drivable spiritual “10 Sites of Awe” treasure hunt, which takes members around the city to learn about Jewish and L.A. history and bring it all back to the theme of teshuvah (repentance). 

“Part of it is fun,” Kasher told the Journal. “We want to get people out and feel alive and activated in the world but part of it is serious. Some of the sites are meant to be serious encounters with difficult moments in our city’s history,” he said. “Using the city as our landscape, we designed a spiritual journey that would take people through places that represent ways that we — either as individuals or as a whole city — need to reflect and repent and make this city a more noble place.”

Over at PUP, Taubman said he would like to hold a tashlich drive-by parade in PUP’s parking lot, where people can donate canned goods or other nonperishables in addition to an offering they want to cast away. After PUP’s services, there will be learning sessions titled, “Unspoken Truths” led by rabbis, interfaith clergy and community leaders about racism, faith and anti-Semitism. 

Outdoor services 

Although most non-Orthodox synagogues have made the decision to go completely virtual, Open Temple’s Rabbi Lori Shapiro told the Journal she plans to stream the High Holy Days services via her outdoor services, which will be held in the Venice synagogue’s parking lot.

In the run-up to the High Holy Days, Open Temple is holding multiple events based on this year’s theme: the American Wanderer. Shapiro plans to have a CrossFit Selichot shvitz, “where one sweats it out through liturgy,” and Elul Shabbat socially distant bike rides. Come the High Holy Days, services will have learning opportunities that touch on trauma, loss, activism, justice and faith, and a family tashlich “protest”  — “because there is a lot to protest this year,” — Shapiro said, adding that the protest will start at Open Temple and end at the beach.  

Open Temple’s Elul Shabbat bike ride in Venice. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Lori Shapiro

The outdoor High Holy Days services will be “strictly choreographed,” Shapiro assured, so people feel safe and comfortable. Open Temple will transform the parking lot by creating artificial grass pods for families to sit in. Everyone will have lawn chairs and umbrellas and personal protective equipment, while the clergy and musicians will be behind plexiglass. All tickets for the services must be signed up for in advance to monitor capacity. Services will be condensed, so Shapiro said she is keeping the “greatest hits” to ensure all important concepts are covered. For those watching on the livestream, congregants will be able to interact with Shapiro in real time thanks to a social media influencer who will be relaying comments from the feed to her so she can acknowledge them during the services.

“The High Holy Days this year, we are creating, all of us together, in a social distance way, a holy temple community,” Shapiro said. “It is a time for rebuilding. It’s a time for connecting, it’s a time of emerging into this real unknown and the world as we know it is transformed. Never being the same again is the essence of what the High Holy Days are. They ask of us to become totally transformed.”

Goldberg, who said she often speaks with Shapiro for inspiration, said it was important for her to create a way for families to observe the holiday outside, without spending the entire day in front of a computer. Nefesh is offering a few “walking services with audio,” paired with walking paths that will cover the Los Feliz, Eagle Rock and Silver Lake areas. Participants will wear headphones and walk through different paths “while the service is happening in their ears and through their bodies” she said. There will be time for meditation, walking and stillness, for certain prayers like the Amidah and the Shema. 

“I think that people are deeply hungering for a Judaism that speaks to who they are; that asks them, invites them, welcomes them as who they are,” Goldberg said. “The thing about Nefesh is [that it] is a Judaism that speaks to you and your life.”

“Never being the same again is the essence of what the High Holy Days are. They ask of us to become totally transformed.” — Rabbi Lori Shapiro 

SEC’s Bouskila is also the rabbi at the modern Orthodox Westwood Village Synagogue. Because use of technology is not permitted during holy days in Orthodox synagogues, he said that multiple outdoor High Holy Day services will take place. Since the shul is small, Westwood Village sent out surveys in advance so families could sign up for a selected slot. Bouskila said most years, 150-180 people attend High Holy Days services, but some won’t attend this year because of the pandemic. Because the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat this year, Bouskila said many families are choosing to come only for the second day (Sunday) for an abbreviated service so they can at least hear the shofar.

He added no matter what, all services will be outdoors and in members’ backyards. Masks will be worn the entire time. People will be responsible for their own prayer books and services that are usually 4 1/2 hours will be 90 minutes.  

“Because it’s outdoors and it’s September in Los Angeles, which is a very hot month, we are going to start the services at 8-8:30 in the morning,” he said.

Rabbi Kalman Topp of the Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills knows how different this year’s services will be, which is why the congregation formed a “High Holy Days Minyan Task Force.”

“The old model of multiple packed minyanim, going several hours is not going to happen this year,” Topp said. He added that there will be an increased number of minyanim outdoors at Beth Jacob’s garden, and offsite more intimate services in many congregants’ backyards. Sifrei Torah, machzorim and other supplies will be provided in addition to making sure there is plenty of shade in each backyard. Of Beth Jacob’s approximately 700 families, he said 30%-40% will be staying home. To make up for in-person experiences, Beth Jacob is creating outdoor drive-by Selichot services leading up to the High Holy Days, where members can pray from the comfort of their cars.  

“Let’s find out who we really are — a people of faith, a people with a wonderful and incredible heritage, who have survived thousands of years of persecution and challenges. We are faced with a new challenge. Let’s rise up to that challenge.” — Rabbi Pini Dunner

Young Israel of North Beverly Hills Synagogue also will hold private outdoor High Holy Days services in various congregants’ backyards, as will happen throughout the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. For security reasons, specific locations will be given out to congregants directly. Rabbi Pini Dunner said that this year will be very different because as an Orthodox congregation, it can’t livestream during the High Holy Days. Instead, Dunner will walk to multiple services in order to accommodate members of the community.

Dunner and Bouskila said they will be heading to the homes of families that cannot make it to services so they will still be able to hear the shofar.

“One has to be sensitive to everybody’s needs and everybody’s concerns in a way that, perhaps on other occasions, we haven’t been,” Dunner said. “I’m making myself as accessible as possible. Anyone can contact me.”

Regardless of where or how you attend services this year, there will be something for everyone. Many L.A. clergy told the Journal that Judaism is more essential now than it has ever been, and it remains the constant in their lives. For those who feel uncomfortable with the various changes, Dunner looks at it as an opportunity to make the Jewish people stronger.

“Only through discomfort and difficulty [do we] sometimes see who we really are. Very often our life is on autopilot,” he said. “This year none of us are on autopilot. Who are we really? I think this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will be able to reevaluate that. We should all embrace that opportunity. Let’s find out who we really are — a people of faith, a people with a wonderful and incredible heritage, who have survived thousands of years of persecution and challenges. We are faced with a new challenge. Let’s rise up to that challenge.”

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on Friday, Sept. 18, and ends at sundown Sept. 20. Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Sunday, Sept. 27, and ends at sundown Sept. 28.

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