Synagogues Grapple With Changes for High Holiday Services
JNS.org – As fall arrives and the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the United States, prayers are very much needed, say rabbis across the Jewish spectrum, even if individuals and families cannot make it to synagogue to herald the new year 5781.
“This is a time when the true focus of prayer and the need for prayer is more intense than ever,” said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. “The prayers of the High Holidays always carry … a certain level of urgency, it is just underscored and that much stronger this year.”
As more liberal Jews groups intend to utilize online platforms to stream services and shofar blowing, Orthodox congregations, which do not use electronic media on Shabbat or major holidays, are scrambling to ensure that as many people who want to come to holiday services can do so while they continue to meet local and state health guidelines.
For many congregations, that means splitting the members into different prayer groups, sometimes in different locations, and lining up additional people to lead the various services. In many cases, to make these accommodations work, parts of the service may look a bit different.
“We normally have 300 people reserve every year for the High Holidays,” said Rabbi Yaakov Robinson, leader of Beis Medrash Mikor HaChaim in Chicago. “We cannot legally or safely accommodate that number in our building. We will likely be building a tent and have two minyanim [prayer services] simultaneously, one indoors and one outdoors.”
While some people may automatically ask for a certain number of seats every year, he said, now they are asking congregants “to really think through if they will be coming to services and if they are taking a seat.”
Robinson, who is also the executive director of Agudath Israel of America’s Midwest Rabbinic Council, said other congregations are having similar discussions. “People are looking at area Jewish community centers, at local schools that won’t be in session, and trying to find spaces they can use because in maintaining social distancing, you end up losing about half your [regular] space.”
One large Modern Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, New Jersey will offer five different services within its building and an additional eight outdoor services, including some at area homes.
Like at many other synagogues, no children will be allowed at services. How a synagogue defines a “child” varies by congregation with some only allowing those over b’nai mitzvah to attend.
Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah services run upwards of five hours at Modern Orthodox congregations, and longer at haredi synagogues. This creates concerns about how long people will be congregating in one space, particularly if indoors. It also creates logistical concerns for synagogues that because of Covid need to have back-to-back prayer services to accommodate their congregants.
To that end, some synagogues are undertaking measures to shorten the prayer time.
For instance, some synagogues, particularly Modern Orthodox shuls, under the guidance of leadership from Yeshiva University, will be cutting back on the number of piyyutim (poems) recited in the service. These are not obligatory prayers, and so organizers feel that in the interest of the health of congregants they not be said this year.
Other synagogues are asking members to recite certain prayers at home, trimming back on in-person singing of prayers, speeches, or simply trying to go a bit faster than usual. Similar changes will be made for Yom Kippur; however, the services will still be longer, as there are more requirements during the Day of Atonement.
While some may grumble about the rules and restrictions, research suggests that all of these changes will be welcome. In a Pew Research Center survey of adults in the United States, 79% of Americans and 80% of Jews say that houses of worship should follow the same rules about social distancing as other organizations and businesses in their region.
The survey also found while more than 60% of people who regularly attend religious services would feel confident about attending services, only about 12% had actually done so in the month preceding the mid-July survey.
Knowing that not everyone is ready to come back inside to services, especially during the High Holidays when sanctuaries usually filled to capacity make social distancing almost impossible, many synagogues in the Reform and Conservative movements will be hosting services online. Some congregations will be “broadcasting” the services led by their rabbis and cantors directly from their sanctuaries to give members a sense of comfort and camaraderie. (Some will arrange that prior to the start of the holiday so that the set-up is in place beforehand.)
For those who can’t make it to shul, Hauer said it’s incumbent on the community to make sure they are cared for.
“If they are not coming to shul on Rosh Hashanah, it’s part of a broader challenge of isolation they’ve had at this time. … We have to bring the shul to them, and in as meaningful a way as possible so they are included in the community and not forgotten because they are out of sight.”
Among Hauer’s suggestions are ensuring that those individuals have a holiday prayer book, traditional holiday foods, and are included in plans for shofar-blowing.
A number of synagogues around the country are doing just that. For example, Brith Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Bellaire, Texas, is having a machzor pickup for its members so they can participate in Zoom services. Each family will get a prayer book and a “New Year Goody Bag” with apples, honey, and challah rolls.
At the end of the day, said Hauer, “I think it will be different than last Rosh Hashanah, but no different than the creativity congregations have shown over the last five months.”
Faygie Holt is a writer for JNS.