Face masks and Zoom are joining apples and honey as Rosh Hashanah must-haves this year.
With the High Holidays approaching and no end to the coronavirus pandemic in sight, congregations are planning ways to observe from a safe social distance.
Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park will hold online services, as well as a Tot Shabbat puppet show and Yom Kippur Zoom study. Rabbi Lance Sussman said older congregants are concerned about being exposed to large crowds and getting sick.
“A lot of our members are over 65,” he said.
He pointed out that online services are more accessible for those with limited mobility and those living out of state. He is expecting a higher turnout for Rosh Hashanah than previous years.
“In the last few years, attendance has gone down on Rosh Hashanah evening because it has become an extended family dinner night,” he said. “People are going to eat dinner and then watch services because they’re going to want to watch the music.”
Folkshul of Philadelphia Director Beth Margolis Rupp hopes the members invite faraway family and friends to join online holiday celebrations this year.
“We’re opening our community online at no cost,” she said.
Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia will also go remote this year.
“Driven by the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, preserving life, our responsibility is to the lives of our community and our world,” Rabbi Jill Maderer said. “The Jewish community can lead here with the extraordinary statement that we are staying home. Our High Holy Day services will all be virtual.”
Rodeph Shalom members have largely approved the plans.
“Congregants appreciate that we are taking safety so seriously and they appreciate that we are creating something beautiful and meaningful for them to experience virtually. They have contributed wonderful thinking to the process, by sharing with us what is most important and sacred to them in the High Holy Day message and experience,” Maderer said.
Socially distant observances are trickier for Jews who do not use electronics or drive on holidays or on Shabbat.
“Zoom or any virtual option is not really an option for us,” said Rabbi Moshe Brennan of Chabad of Penn Wynne in Wynnewood.
Rather than hosting virtual services, his Chabad has sent community members celebratory care packages for the holidays during the pandemic. For Shavuot, the boxes contained cheesecakes.
“For Pesach we did a seder in a box and had them delivered to people’s houses,” he said. “If we can’t bring people to the holiday, we’re going to bring the holiday to the people.”
For Rosh Hashanah, Brennan will be sending boxes containing honey and holiday guides. He is also considering organizing a socially distanced shofar sounding in a park.
Other congregations are also looking for ways to conduct safe, limited in-person programming. Rabbi Charles Briskin of Congregation Shir Ami in Newtown is brainstorming ideas for members to hear the shofar blown offline.
He is considering a socially distant Rosh Hashanah picnic in a large field that would be shorter than a regular service. He wants to make sure the shofar sound is accessible for everyone, including those who can’t leave their homes.
“What I also hope that we can do is send members of our congregation who sound shofar to basically do a drive-by shofar sounding for our homebound members and for those who sort of have limited access to technology,” he said.
Folkshul will deliver “celebration boxes” for Rosh Hashanah and conduct online workshops in addition to hosting online services.
“We are holding shofar blowing workshops for our kids,” Rupp said. “We’re putting together a cacophony, a musical shofar blowing event that we will be able to livestream from people in their own homes.”
She is also planning an outdoor tashlich session with limited attendance and social distancing. Group singing has been deemed unsafe, so leaders will engage participants in a meditation session rather than singing prayers.
Shir Ami will hold services online but is looking into options for tashlich at Tyler State Park.
“We want to try to create a tashlich experience that would enable small groups of people over a course of extended time to make their way to the site we normally use,” Briskin said.
The first two days of Rosh Hashanah fall on a weekend this year. Since weekends are when the state park is busiest, the synagogue will be keeping an eye out for quieter time slots.
Keneseth Israel is encouraging congregants to observe tashlich independently, but will set up a socially distant in-person memorial service for Yom Kippur.
“Our smaller worship space is a memorial chapel and if people want to come in to say Kaddish and stand by family memorial plaques we set up a system where they can come in by appointment,” Sussman said.
Clergy and leaders acknowledged that this year’s holidays will be challenging without the ability to gather in person.
“Human beings are not supposed to live this way, and these holy times are meant to be observed together, in-person,” Maderer said.”