Synagogues Reinvent High Holiday Services Amid COVID

Sept. 8, 2020 – By LILA SARICK

When Rabbi Lisa Grushcow ascends the bimah on Rosh Hashanah at the Montreal synagogue she leads, it will be in a silent and nearly empty building.

Like many synagogues, Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom has decided it is not safe to gather together, and so all the High Holiday services will be virtual this year.

While some rabbis may be negative about “three-day-a-year Jews,” Rabbi Grushcow said she is not one of them.

“I love that feeling of a full sanctuary, of people being there with each other and for each other,” she told the CJR. “There’s no question I’ll miss that.”

While Jews may have participated in Zoom seders over Passover, few thought that Jewish life would be still be online by the High Holidays. But COVID has forced synagogues of all denominations to radically change how and where they will worship this fall.

For some institutions it will mean moving to technology in a way they never envisioned. For others, it means shortened services, outdoors if possible, to reduce congregants’ exposure to each other.

For many synagogues, the priority has been connecting with members in a time of isolation. Rabbi Grushcow’s temple distributed 600 High Holiday kits with a honey cake, a yahrzeit candle and a mizrach – decorative art used to indicate the direction of prayer – to help people transform their homes into sacred spaces.

“We’re trying to create that feeling of connection. That’s what’s at the heart of what people are looking for,” Rabbi Grushcow said.

While Jewish history is long enough to demonstrate that the current situation is not entirely unprecedented, technology is certainly changing the landscape for synagogues, Rabbi Grushcow pointed out.

“We are all working not to reinvent our mission, but the way we deliver it,” she said. “The fact we can use technology is a huge help and there’s a certain openness to doing things new ways that is helpful.”

Rabbi Adam Cutler will be conscious of new technology when he begins Rosh Hashanah services at Adath Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Toronto.

Only about 170 of the synagogue’s 1,100 seats will be filled, to comply with social distancing rules, but the service will be livestreamed to members who do not feel comfortable attending this year.

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards had been considering the halachic implications of livestream technology in synagogues before the pandemic started, but hastened to issue a ruling in May that approved the use of cameras on Shabbat and holy days.

Individual synagogues can decide whether to adopt the ruling, and after studying the decision and speaking with colleagues, Rabbi Cutler felt it was the right thing for Adath Israel.

“It’s not something we plan on keeping permanently, but it’s there until everyone feels comfortable being present in the shul.”

When leading services, Rabbi Cutler said, “I make a point of noticing the additional people (watching) at home. It means looking at the camera, which is new for me.”

Adath Israel’s services will be shorter in order to limit exposure, and require pre-registration for contact tracing.

Recognizing that people may need more preparation for the High Holidays this year, the synagogue prepared a month-long program of daily videos highlighting different character traits as well as booklets with texts and essays for discussion.

The synagogue parking lot will also be the site of a drive-through holiday experience before Rosh Hashanah to allow children to hear the shofar, eat apples and honey, and symbolically cast away their sins (into an inflatable pool), all while remaining safely in their family’s car.

Like most synagogues that have re-opened, Adath Israel has not restricted people from attending, but suggests that those who are older consider whether they should come to services in person.

“I fundamentally believe that people have the right to their own agency, you can decide what’s right for you,” Rabbi Cutler said.

Still, it will be an unusual experience when Rabbi Cutler enters a sanctuary where only a fraction of the congregants will be in the pews.

“You have to gear yourself up, and realize there are empty seats for appropriate reasons,” he said.

Not every synagogue in Canada is facing the same restrictions. In Halifax, where COVID cases have been low, current health regulations allow groups to occupy 50 percent of a building’s capacity.

Rabbi Gary Karlin, spiritual leader of Halifax’s Shaar Shalom Congregation, estimates his sanctuary will hold up to 150 people, accounting for social distancing, with more accommodated in a tent. The service will also be livestreamed.

Halifax Synagogue
Halifax Synagogue

Rabbi Karlin will also blow the shofar at the Conservative synagogue’s tashlich ceremony, which is held on the city’s boardwalk, facing the Atlantic Ocean.

While it will be a different High Holiday season, with restrictions and masks, Rabbi Karlin who is celebrating his second Rosh Hashanah in Halifax, hears from colleagues about synagogues that will not be able to open at all.

“I feel very fortunate that things are good deal safer in Nova Scotia. I thank God I’m in a relatively safe place.”

Not opening for the High Holidays was not an option for Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, a Montreal Orthodox synagogue that has taken its classes and programs online, but eschews livestreaming on Shabbat and holidays.

Instead, the synagogue will be offering multiple shortened services, indoors and outside, as well as a pre-recorded service featuring the choir and cantor that was produced over the summer.

Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold, a member of Shaar Hashomayim’s clergy and president of the Montreal Board of Rabbis, will be leading a family service in a tent this year.

“None of us are having children in the building, which is counter to every instinct we have,” she said.

Instead, the synagogue has sent out a High Holiday box with at-home activities for its youngest members, and volunteers have made calls to older members. “There’s a lot of isolation,” said Rabba Finegold. “We want people to know we’re there for them.”

The pandemic has also thrown new light on Jewish home life, she said. “We’ve all spent so much time at home, that’s reinvigorated that home base for many families.”

The synagogue, for instance, made a challah kit for families, who could then participate by Zoom with Rabba Finegold as she and her daughter braided challah and sang Shabbat songs.

“They’re in my kitchen and I’m in their kitchens. That’s a new way of Jewish engagement.”

Rabba Finegold has also been working with families to craft bar mitzvahs and baby-namings that were completely different from what they had envisioned.

“It’s an amazing time of innovation. There’s the silver lining and we have to harness that too.”

While she could never have imagined the restrictions that COVID has placed on people, she said it may also open new avenues.

“To be outdoors in a tent greeting the New Year, maybe there are possibilities there. We’ve invented some pretty engaging things.”