Personalizing Home Ritual With ‘HighHolidaysAtHome’

The team has developed guides and webinars. They're providing steps to invoke various aspects of the holidays as well as family memories. 
September 17, 2020
Illustrated by Jessica Tamar Deutsch and available at highholidaysathome.com

As the world prepares for its first High Holy Days season of the pandemic era, the team behind Haggadot.com, a nonprofit, crowdsourced haggadah-making platform, has launched HighHolidaysAtHome. The site is designed around at-home rituals accessible to everyone, and features ready-to-download materials to help users celebrate the new year and its holidays. The microsite, like Haggadot.com before it, aims to democratize Jewish meaning, said Eileen Levinson, founder of Haggadot.com and Custom & Craft, the nonprofit design lab that created both platforms. 

“The high holidays bring out even the most skeptical Jews’ superstitions,” Levinson said. “We all joke about being ‘bad Jews,’ but if there’s a day of the year that you worry about something coming back to bite you for being a bad Jew, it’s going to happen over Rosh Hashanah or probably on Yom Kippur.” But, she added, High Holy Days have “become so ossified into this frontal experience of sitting in synagogue. [The team members] are thinking about ‘What’s the purpose of this time of year and the rituals, and how do we start to make them more accessible and more effective?’ It’s a big design thinking exercise with empathy toward our current lives.”

At Home Alter; Photo courtesy of Eileen Levinson.

The site contains clips and booklets “centered on home-based, self-guided rituals that really speak to what’s exciting about this moment,” said Rebecca Missel, director of partnerships and operations at Haggadot.com. The materials also feature contributions by artists and poets, including Jessica Tamar Deutsch, a Brooklyn-based visual artist; Los Angeles-based Kohenet Rachel Kann; and American Jewish University rabbinical student Julia Knobloch. Author, singer, Jewish educator and spiritual leader Deanna Neil and career educator Julee S. Levine — both L.A. based — contributed meditations. 

In the early days of the pandemic, more than 400,000 people (three to four times the usual audience) turned to Haggadot.com for Passover seder resources, and then requested High Holy Days content. HighHolidaysatHome is the result of these inquiries, months of intensive work from the core team and users providing community funding in the form of small donations to the site. There have been just under 4,000 small donors with an average donation of $30.

“Whatever the trend for homemade ritual was, COVID has accelerated it tremendously,” Missel said.

 “ ‘What’s the purpose of this time of year and the rituals, and how do we start to make them more accessible and more effective?’ It’s a big design thinking exercise with empathy toward our current lives.” — Eileen Levinson

Haggadot was born from Levinson’s experience in CalArts’ MFA program, where a project challenged students to imagine the future of publications. “I was thinking about my own relationship to Judaism and doing a lot of artwork about my dissatisfaction with Judaism, and starting to realize that I could use design as a tool to reimagine Judaism. I thought about the haggadah and all the ways that people are writing their own and wouldn’t it be great if there were a site where people could share, and mix and match and could customize.”

For the High Holy Days, the team has developed guides and webinars. For instance, a home altar-making guide provides steps to create a display of meaningful objects that invoke various aspects of the holidays as well as family memories.

“The idea of home altar-making is very radical and completely not radical,” Missel said. “There are so many other examples in Judaism of things that serve an altar-like function,” she said, citing the Shabbat dinner table with candles, wine and challah, and Passover’s seder plate. “We invite folks to think of it as whatever they want. Permissiveness is the ‘secret sauce’ of what makes this organization hum. Your personal relationship with Judaism is yours. The most authentic expression is what’s truest to you. We’re giving people the space to play with it on their own and figure out what makes the most sense to them.”

Levinson identified tashlich, for which the site has a guide called “Wash My Soul,” as a ritual particularly ripe for reinvention. 

“I find tashlich to be a beautiful experience that speaks more to my personal needs,” she said. “It’s physical. You’re moving your body. It’s in nature. There’s a performative aspect to it. The words can be spoken out loud or to yourself …. We have the Al Chet” — a High Holy Days prayer phrased in a collective plural voice — “and the contrast is, tashlich is so personal.”

Illustrated by Jessica Tamar Deutsch and available at highholidaysathome.com

Another guide, “Seeker Season: A High Holiday Guidebook for the Curious & Courageous,” explores the season’s themes and customs, integrating modern quotes from people including the late singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and the late African American author, filmmaker and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. There’s also a 35- to 40-minute “Four Toasts Rosh Hashanah Seder,” focusing on four themes of Rosh Hashanah: Yom Teruah (Day of Reawakening), Yom HaDin (Day of Recommitment), Yom HaZikaron (Day of Remembrance), and Yom Harat Olam (Day of Re-creation); and Sukkot blessings and activities, featuring pieces on connecting to nature and containing a Land Acknowledgment Ceremony.  

Levinson said she appreciates the value of being in community, “but there needs to be a range of options. Synagogues have a hard job of keeping doors open, but asking for exorbitant fees to show up at vulnerable times just doesn’t work. We still struggle with this as a business model, but for me it’s so important that everything is available for free and you pay for what you wish. It’s about access.”

By listening to users’ requests, the team has learned that there’s a demand for ritual interpretation, particularly those that fully embrace women’s contemporary needs and mark current-day milestones such as fertility challenges, pregnancy loss, adoption and alternative family rituals, and other moments of transition like purchasing or leaving a home, paying off student debt, starting or completing cancer treatments and blessings for mental health and wellness. 

“On a very practical level, this is giving people the tools to be more considerate about how they create space for themselves and what these objects mean for them,” Levinson said. “If you can realize that you have the tools you need to take care of yourself spiritually and emotionally, and rabbis are there to help deepen the experience, that’s really empowering, especially at this time that can feel so chaotic.

“Through my interest in design and performance, I’ve come to understand ritual as a series of design choices,” Levinson said, adding that she understood her dissatisfaction with rituals was “because someone else was making design choices that didn’t have me in mind. I can get to the same essence of what the ritual is supposed to do if I [have] more understanding about the origins of the ritual, its purpose and all the choices that go into it that I can adjust for myself and for others.”

You can find all the guides listed above on their website, or register for upcoming webinars and watch recordings of past sessions here.

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