Very different High Holy Days across America


On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Yamim Noraim, a prayer reads: “Who will live and who will die. … Who by plague …”

“Most years, many see those words as theoretical, but this year they will feel more real,” former US Deputy Health and Human Services Secretary Tevi Troy told JNS.

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — with 6.5 million cases in the United States and nearly 200,000 deaths since the start of the outbreak earlier this year — synagogues nationwide have drastically adjusted their holiday services to minimize congregant interactions and time spent in one area.

“The requirements of social distancing will limit the capacity of our shul facilities and, in many cases, require us to subdivide into smaller groups. Distancing and masking will challenge the feeling of community among the assembled,” stated the Orthodox Union in an Aug. 14 guidance. “Time limitations and other constraints may force the elimination of inspiring parts of the service. And, most difficult of all, many members of our communities may not be able to come to the synagogue at all.”

OU executive vice president Rabbi Moshe Hauer told JNS that “halachic guidance and a variety of options regarding whether and how to shorten the time together in shul has been provided by many national halachic authorities, and local rabbis should decide the halachic solution that is most fitting for their community.”

For example, Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Southeast with more than 500 member families, is hosting both back-to-back indoor and outdoor services for Rosh Hashanah. Masks and social distancing will be required at all times. Outdoor services will be held under rented massive tents. Services will be truncated due to the pandemic, as opposed to the usual several-hour long davening.

There will also be the option of only a “one-hour express” of shofar and Musaf, Beth Jacob executive director Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler said.

“If you are praying at home and you just want to have a taste of synagogue without checking in for a multi-hour service, you could still come,” he said. Those blowing the shofar will be tested.

Yom Kippur plans have yet to be decided, according to Rabbi Tendler. He described the holiest day in the Jewish calendar as “a different beast,” considering that services on Yom Kippur — that holiday starts at sundown on Sept. 27 and ends at nightfall the following day — are longer than those on Rosh Hashanah and, of course, involves a fast.

“We’re going to learn lessons,” he said. “We’re going to see things on the ground and how they play out.”

Meanwhile, Chabad congregations in the United States say they will operate in accordance with local, state and federal guidelines.

Despite the shortened services, “the key to davening is not the length of the services, but the kavanah, ‘intentionality,’ and the quality of our prayers,” Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, told JNS.

“The core of Yamim Noraim is tefillah and now, more than ever, we need to turn to G-d for his support. There is a deep uncertainty about what this year holds for us,” he said. “The Yamim Noraim always bring some measure of tension. This year, the level of uncertainty is even more pronounced making the experience even more fraught with angst.”

“We are not just asking G-d to take us out of this struggle, but we must bring G-d into this struggle. His presence gives us the strength and resilience to carry forward, and find hope in this most difficult time,” continued Berman. “In this time, the central guiding principles in our tradition are safety and health. All of our synagogues and communities need to have these on the forefront of their consciousness. So, wearing masks and social distancing is a part of our service to G-d. It keeps us safe, and it keeps our neighbors safe.”

Berman also remarked that the blowing of the shofar has meaning, especially during a pandemic.

“The shofar has been sounded every year for thousands of years, through the most triumphant and challenging times throughout Jewish history,” he said. “It is both the sounding of the shofar and the listening to the shofar that has given us the strength and ability not only to survive, but also to thrive.”

Rabbi Hauer echoed Berman and said that “while the service will need to be shorter, it’s very important that the service not lose its soul. Communal singing, words of Torah inspiration and familiar elements of the liturgy are all very valuable components of the High Holiday experience. If deemed safe and practical, they may be reduced but not eliminated.”

The pandemic has created “a renewed appreciation of the value of our relationships with family, friends and community. Ironically, we may be more completely joining together as a community than in the past,” said Rabbi Hauer.

“Many in our community have suffered the loss of loved ones and have experienced serious illness, financial difficulty, isolation, and profound uncertainty and stress,” he continued. “We must look out for each other and reach out to each other with understanding and support.”

“My synagogue has a ‘no politics from the bimah’ rule, and I prefer shuls that maintain that approach. I want words of Torah from my rabbi, and political commentary from cable news or talk radio,” said Troy. “That said, I suspect that race relations, COVID-19, and the election will be hot topics from many pulpits this year.”

Though not addressing race relations and the election specifically, Berman said “the central theme of this period is the sanctity of each individual. This is demonstrated by our emphasis on safety and health, but also animates our responsibility and connection to one another, and bolsters the fabric of our societal connection and unity.”

“Synagogues are a place where people want to connect with G-d to reflect on life and its meaning,” Rabbi Yechezkel Moskowitz, an Orthodox rabbi in New York, told JNS. “I do not see how politics and things that seem to be highly contentious should be injected when much more important things are relevant to the day.”

Without addressing race relations and the election specifically, Rabbi Hauer said that “the High Holidays are about introspection, reflection and setting goals for the coming year. In that vein, some rabbis focus on issues impacting individuals and families in their communities, while others discuss broader Jewish communal and national issues. In all cases, sermons should be an opportunity to elevate and unite the community around its cherished values.”

Nonetheless, Berman said, “looking back over the past year, we are not just looking at the challenges and difficulties, but also need to recognize the good and blessing in our lives.”

“Being thankful is an important lesson and a core secret … to lasting happiness,” he continued. “As we pray, we should find time to explore, recognize and appreciate the blessing in our lives. We need to find a way to approach this year with a spirit of thanks and find a way to find blessing even amidst challenges.”