High Holiday Kits Turn Homes Into Sanctuaries

woman and child in masks outdoors at table with boxes
Rabbi Danielle Parmenter and her daughter Annabel create an art project for the High Holidays. | Photo by Rachel Blum

Candles. Honey. Challah. Decorations.

These are just some of the items being packed into boxes and bags at synagogues across the country this fall.

The packages are among many that will start to land soon on the front steps of Jewish homes: deliveries of prayer books, art supplies and gifts meant to make a High Holiday season spent at home a little less lonely and a little more spiritually fulfilling.

“It’s going to be different, but different is full of opportunity and different can be holy, too,” said Rabbi Michelle Pearlman of Beth Chaim Reform Congregation in Malvern.

The congregation will distribute High Holiday kits including candles for lighting and a printable shiviti, or spiritual wall hanging used to create a sanctuary space in the home. Families with children will receive supplies and discussion questions for a time capsule art project to help them reflect on the holiday season.

The High Holiday kits reflect a dawning awareness that with most synagogues closed or at least curtailed, homes are now the center of the Jewish experience. Just as people the world over have begun baking sourdough bread during the pandemic, many Jews have started baking their own challah. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic extends into the second half of its first year, synagogues and other Jewish organizations are taking new steps to make home practice easier to access.

To some, the shift in focus from synagogues to homes as the center of Jewish life is a healthy recalibration for a culture in which synagogues had become too central.

“We’ve sharply differentiated home from synagogue … and we’ve put all our energy into the synagogue,” said Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a professor at Hebrew Union College who researches synagogues, liturgy and ritual. “Instead of two separate entities, we now have the opportunity to share from one home to another.”

Hoffman himself has found that the pandemic has changed the way he observes Shabbat. When the pandemic first started, he started singing Shabbat songs on Friday afternoon with his children and grandchildren over Zoom. Eventually, the gatherings became a weekly ritual and incorporated songs, candle lighting and a full Shabbat dinner conducted over Zoom.

“We worry about synagogues … but at the same time we have a strong home ceremony that keeps us going and it’s partially the secret of our success,” Hoffman said. “It’s kind of an exciting moment in time when we’re experimenting with open scripted rituals in our homes that could become anything.”

Clergy and congregants are traversing uncharted territory, according to Vanessa Ochs, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Virginia. She said this year’s Passover had effectively been a “Jewish boot camp,” as people who might normally attend a family or communal seder had to figure out how to make one themselves, and now the lessons are being applied to the High Holidays.

“How do you do Rosh Hashanah on your own? Our community hasn’t invented that yet,” she said.

That invention is underway. A website that sells Passover haggadahs — and allows users to compile resources to create their own — has launched [email protected], which invites users to “download a simple Rosh Hashanah Seder & Yom Kippur Guidebook or mix & match to create your own holiday gathering.”

Support is also coming from the synagogues that congregants cannot enter.

Rabbi Gail Glicksman of YPC Shari-Eli in South Philadelphia will send congregants an abbreviated online service guide via mail or email. She drew on her experience serving the community to select the tunes and prayers that were the most important to them.

She encourages participants to create a spiritual zone in their homes with spiritual objects, such as family photos or prayer books.

In addition to making sure they have easy-to-access Zoom setups and prayer books to follow along with at home, many congregations are distributing supplies aimed at enriching the holiday experience.

Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park will distribute tote bags containing mahzors, invitations to participate in Israel bonds and Yizkor books memorializing the names of deceased congregants. They will also include jars of honey harvested by members Ofer and Rachel Yehezkel, who raise their own bees.

Rabbi Danielle Parmenter, rabbi of congregational learning at Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, said her synagogue will send Tishrei-In-A-Box kits to the synagogue’s religious school students. Children will receive supplies for an art project related to holidays during the month of Tishrei, like making a kaleidoscope to emphasize new outlooks during Rosh Hashanah. They can log on to a Zoom art lesson with one of their teachers to complete the activity. Families can also do the projects together as part of their holiday observance.

Other Jewish organizations are also creating home holiday kits.

Old City Jewish Arts Center, which usually hosts holiday gatherings for young professionals and the broader Old City Jewish community, is selling Rosh Hashanah kits with challah and honey cake made by co-Director Emunah Wircberg, who is a certified chef.

Some synagogues are hosting events designed to help congregations think about how to make this year’s celebrations meaningful.

On Sept. 10, the South Philadelphia Shtiebel will host “Home for the (High) Holidays,” a talk with Jewish cookbook author Leah Koenig about cooking tips and food rituals to mark the new year at home.

Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter, who is Koenig’s sister-in-law, said more Ashkenazi Jews are embracing the Rosh Hashanah seder, a festive meal that traditionally has been more commonly observed by Sephardi communities. Eating foods that symbolize renewal, such as fruit, or a pun related to “Head of the Year,” such as fish heads, are rituals that can be easily done at home.

“So what I’m inviting people to do is just imagine, ‘What is it that you’d like to bless the new year with this year?’ and then challenge yourself on the grocery store run or delivery service to find a pun relating to that blessing and bring it to your table,” Fruchter said.

JTA reporter Shira Hanau contributed to this article.

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