Sept. 11, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD
Canada’s Reform congregations are going online tomorrow (Saturday) night to mark the start of the High Holidays.
Sponsored by the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism, the event follows the Reform movement’s successful online “Tikkun Leil” late-night study session at Shavuot.
It will be the movement’s fourth effort at staging important events online. Previous efforts included the “Rise Up for Israel” fundraiser that collected $100,000, and a nationwide Tikkun Olam town hall.
Saturday’s event, however, will be the first involving an actual service. Twenty congregations across the country are expected to take part.
“Selichot is the official kick-off to the High Holy Days season,” said Rabbi Jordan Cohen of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton. “It has always been a uniquely different service that I find very moving.
“We knew we had to do something to get the most out of this season,” he added. “We got together on this rather than having everyone reinvent their own wheel. With this, we are all working from the same siddur and everyone is literally on the same page.”
Cohen and his wife, Cantor Paula Baruch, took the lead in organizing the event. His team put together study sessions and a keynote presentation by Rabbi Larry Hoffman of Hebrew Union College. Baruch led a group that arranged the pre-recorded service.
Anshe Sholom’s traditional Selichot service includes a period of text study, changing the dressings on the Torah scrolls to their High Holy Days white, and a period of prayers where the sanctuary lights are dimmed and congregants are encouraged to spread out and search their souls.
That’s a spirit Baruch said they want to preserve in an online service where participants will have a chance to see their own sanctuary.
“We want to give people an inclusive, intimate moment, even though it’s all on a screen,” she said.
“Every congregation will be able to see inside their own sanctuary and their own rabbi and cantor. That will make the experience very special.”
Headlining the service will be a new version of Avinu Malkeinu performed by a virtual choir of cantors.
Dr. Pekka Sinervo, president of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism, said the council is providing advertising and technical support for the event.
“We see it as doing the things we are supposed to do, supporting the community,” he said.
Reform congregations, he said, have been leaders in responding to the COVID pandemic by using technology to continue offering services and programs to members, something he thinks will continue, especially for marginalized communities such as the elderly and handicapped.
“With this, we are taking advantage of technology to rethink how we reach out to our community,” he said. “With the pandemic, it became very clear that this was the right thing to do. This opens up a new dimension to what out congregations can be,” he added.
Saturday’s program on Zoom begins at 9 pm with a keynote presentation by Hoffman, followed by discussion groups at 9:30; Havdalah at 10 p.m.; and the Selichot service at 10:15.
Among those helping to organize the event were Rabbi Stephen Wise of Oakville’s Share-Beth El congregation; Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Toronto’s City Shul, Rabbi Debbie Dressler of Temple Israel in London, and Cantor David Rosen of Holy Blossom Temple.
Steve Arnold worked 42 years in Canadian journalism, retiring in 2016 from The Hamilton Spectator. He holds a BA in history and political science, an MA in public policy analysis and has received 25 awards for writing excellence. He now lives in St. Catharines, Ontario.