The most sacred Jewish holidays are approaching, bringing with them the longest and most well-attended services of the year. Even in the best of times, a congregation’s intensive preparations for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur take months. But this year, there is no road map for those preparations, which are dominated by the mortal threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic. The most basic feature of the High Holidays, gathering in a large room with many people, is unsafe.
As they plan for an unprecedented, socially distanced High Holiday season, Bay Area Jewish communities are making widely varying, highly creative and often surprising choices.
Prerecorded services with slick, professional video production. Livestreamed services with a homey feel. Outdoor services with strictly limited attendance. A drive-in program featuring the best of the High Holidays liturgy. A Rosh Hashanah seder on Zoom. Audio recordings. Gift baskets of machzors, games and honey for a sweet new year.
Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on Sept. 18 and Yom Kippur at sundown on Sept. 27.
The first question is, what can be done in person? While some communities have decided the risks are too great, others are going for it, while making services and programs as safe as possible.
At Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley with 270 member households, the High Holiday committee is putting together small outdoor services at multiple locations within the Berkeley eruv, where many of the congregants live. There will be two shifts of morning services, but no evening services. Seats will be 8 feet apart, masks will be required, attendance will be strictly limited, there will be minimal singing, and the service will be as abbreviated as Orthodox halachah allows.
Though Orthodox Jews are prohibited from using electricity on Shabbat and major holidays, Beth Israel has found a way to do a little livestreaming. Kol Nidre, the most important service of the season for many Jews, will be streamed before Yom Kippur technically begins at sundown.
Beth Israel also will be offering a few chances to hear the piercing blast of the shofar in small groups around Berkeley.
Not being able to sing the classic High Holiday melodies together is a huge disappointment, but Beth Israel’s Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is trying to look on the bright side of that challenge.
“In most years we rely, perhaps too heavily, on the familiar melodies and communal energy to carry us, to arouse us, and awaken us towards teshuvah [repentance],” he said in an email.
“This year I suspect that just reading the words of Unetaneh Tokef (‘who by plague’) or of Avinu Malkeinu (‘withhold the plague from Your heritage’) will crack open our hearts, for our hearts are already cracked and our longing for God’s presence and deliverance is deeper than prior years.”
At Chabad of Marin in San Rafael, in-person services are the only option on the table. Luckily, the house has a yard that can safely accommodate over 100 people at a social distance, said Rabbi Yisrael Rice, who co-directs the Chabad center with his wife, Guila Rice. So they plan to hold the full Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the backyard.
“I’m trying to minimize risk and make people comfortable,” Rice said. But he’s also offering other options “so people can feel more secure in coming in a smaller environment.” For example, some of the services will be preceded by “microservices” that will include crowd-pleasing highlights such as Avinu Malkeinu, shofar blowing and selections of the High Holiday Torah portions.
Based on prior years, Rice believes Yom Kippur will sort itself out, in a way. “Yom Kippur has its own built-in microservices,” he said. “The Americans come for Kol Nidre, the Russians come for Yizkor, and the Israelis come for Ne’ilah [the dramatic conclusion of Yom Kippur].”
“So we’re not getting large groups of people all at the same time. We end up with smaller groups; people of various backgrounds have the parts that they were brought up with.”
At Congregation Beth David, a Conservative synagogue with 500 member households in Saratoga, Rabbi Jaymee Alpert is offering a microservice of sorts as well.
Her congregation has been doing online services daily since the start of the pandemic, and will be doing the same during the holidays. But the synagogue is also offering an alternative on the second day of Rosh Hashanah — “a parking lot experience,” Alpert calls it.
Alpert and Rabbi Philip Ohriner, Beth David’s previous rabbi, will cover the greatest hits of the season, including shofar blowing, Avinu Malkeinu and Unetaneh Tokef. They will be seated on a riser at one end of the Beth David parking lot, separated from each other by a plastic barrier.
Attendees will remain in their cars, spaced evenly throughout the parking lot. Each carload will need to download an app that will connect them by Bluetooth to the service. It will be over in less than an hour.
Alpert said prerecording services isn’t right for Beth David. “We’ve been doing live Zoom services for months now, and it has worked really well for our community,” she said. “For Beth David, it’s having that live element that works well, and it allows people to participate. We can even do a full-ish Torah service — the readers read from a Chumash [a printed book containing the Torah] instead of a scroll, and we’re able to have people say the blessing like they’re having an aliyah. People appreciate that live interaction.”
That said, she will be shortening some of the famously long holiday services. “You can’t ask people to sit for four-hour services on Zoom.”
After the virtual Erev Rosh Hashanah service, which kicks off the new year observances, Alpert will lead a Rosh Hashanah seder over Zoom. It is a ritual meal featuring symbolic foods, but is much less involved than its Passover cousin. The Rosh Hashanah seder is a widely observed tradition in Sephardi and Mizrachi communities but is little known among Ashkenazi Jews.
“I will admit that my prior experience with Rosh Hashanah seders has been limited,” Alpert said. “I have been to them, but never led one before, so I’m doing some research, and this will be a new experience for me.”
Alpert is not the only Ashkenazi Jew turning to a seder this year. Beth Israel, the Berkeley Orthodox synagogue, is hand-delivering a box of holiday gifts to all members, including a greeting card, honey for a sweet year, resources on praying at home, activities for families with children, and instructions for a DIY Rosh Hashanah seder.
Congregation Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco with 330 member households, is preparing gift baskets as well. They will include machzors (High Holiday prayerbooks), games for families and discussion questions.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Rabbi Dan Ain was reluctant to stream services, but loosened up after his congregants began asking for them.
Throughout the day on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there will be several streamed options, including a straightforward, but abbreviated, morning service; “a soul music experience” with Ain’s frequent collaborator musician Jeremiah Lockwood; and two family services for kids of different ages.
For those who want the full, traditional Beth Sholom experience, audio recordings are being made available. A big part of Beth Sholom services, Ain said, is the deep bench of expert lay leaders who handle services throughout the year. Want to hear Marilyn and Max and the whole gang of familiar member voices? Want to hear Betty chant the haftarah as she has done every year at Beth Sholom for decades? Longing to hear Rabbi Russell sing the signature piyyutim (liturgical poems) of the season? They will all be available to hear.
At Mission Minyan, a lay-led traditional egalitarian community in San Francisco, recordings will play a role as well. Typically, Mission Minyan expects 300 to 400 people over the course of the High Holidays. This year, the leaders have opted not to hold in-person services at all, though there will be some small gatherings for shofar blowing. And, in accordance with their traditional stance on halachah, they will not be livestreaming anything on the holidays themselves.
“It’s really, really bad for us,” said David Henkin, a member of the administrative committee. “The kinds of things that we do are about getting people together in a small space for loud singing and inviting strangers over to our homes for Shabbat meals, which you really can’t do in a pandemic.”
Mission Minyan will gather virtually several times for Selichot, the tradition of singing penitential poems and prayers during the two weeks leading up to the High Holidays. Those gatherings will be recorded, and members can listen to them on the holidays as a way of feeling close to the community, Henkin said.
“I can’t speak for what everyone in the end will decide to do. For me, best case is that the whole High Holiday season is full of the kind of musical experience or some part of it that we associate with the days themselves, and that being able to sing together after a fashion during Selichot will produce that seasonal feeling,” he said. “And because it’s recorded, if people want to plug into that on the day itself, I hope they will get something out of it.”
Several congregations’ plans are still in flux, with some rabbis cautioning that it’s still early, with Rosh Hashanah a month away.
At Beth Chaim Congregation, an independent, progressive synagogue in Danville with 300 member households, Rabbi Dan Goldblatt said he and his team “are looking at several different scenarios.”
Services will be virtual, but who will lead them is still up in the air. Normally, it is a “cantorial group” of about 10 members. But this year, some are weathering the pandemic out of town, and Goldblatt is weighing how many he can safely assemble in the sanctuary.
“We’re trying to determine whether there’s any way we can have several people there but be safely distanced,” Goldblatt said. “Singing is a very problematic thing with regard to the virus, so we’re looking at possibilities, maybe keeping doors open to circulate air.”
He’s also thinking about the advantages Zoom offers. “We’re thinking about things that virtual allows that we normally don’t do,” he said. “People are hungry for community right now.”
To record or not to record
Reform synagogues are responding to the challenges in two main ways: Some will be livestreaming services, as they have been for months. Others will be prerecording most or all of their High Holiday services and then streaming them at the appointed time.
The choice comes down to a question of immediacy and a homey quality, versus a well-produced, “high-quality experience,” as multiple Reform synagogue leaders put it.
Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, with 500 member households, organized a series of focus groups to find out what members want from services this year.
“In a normal year you get a fully immersive experience,” said executive director Gordon Gladstone. “They come in the morning on Yom Kippur and stay throughout the day and they can explore a lot of pieces of liturgy, text study, Torah study, a number of things.”
Participants in the focus groups agreed they wanted to experience a feeling of community, as well as be inside their historic sanctuary, with its high blue dome and unique stained-glass of Moses in Yosemite. Gladstone called the space “a lodestone for this congregation.”
To give Sherith members an experience of well-rehearsed, awe-inspiring music and a sense of immersion in the sanctuary, the Reform congregation hired a professional video crew and is safely recording all of the music and prayers and sermons ahead of time. There may be some live elements, but the leaders haven’t decided yet.
While Gladstone acknowledges that there’s no perfect solution, “If we let perfect become the enemy of good, what we put on will be unsatisfactory.”
Peninsula Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue in San Mateo with about 800 member households, weighed the same concerns and decided to have both prerecorded and live components in their services.
To facilitate the recording process, they removed a sliding wall at the back of the sanctuary and put in a Plexiglas wall, enabling Cantor Elana Jagoda Kaye to safely sing at full blast. Several musicians in an adjacent room were conducted by Jagoda Kaye. Video feeds connected her to the rabbis on the bimah and vice-versa. Meanwhile, a professional video crew recorded the whole thing.
“In a way, today was Rosh Hashanah for me,” Associate Rabbi Lisa Kingston told J. last week.
Other recordings will be made of families reflecting on the year. The congregation’s ba’al tekiah (shofar blower) will record himself at home doing the shofar portions of the services. And in addition to the regular Yizkor service, people will share memories of their loved ones.
“We’re trying to spotlight voices of our congregation, instead of having it feel like the congregation is just watching the clergy team,” Kingston said. Using technology, she said, has been “a blessing.”
At two other Reform synagogues J. contacted, the clergy team opted for livestreamed rather than prerecorded services.
“We want people to be with us at a particular moment,” said Rabbi Yoel Kahn of Congregation Beth El, a Reform synagogue in Berkeley with 525 member households. “We feel that it is most authentic to be in real time together.”
In a normal year, Beth El has a choir but also emphasizes congregational participation in the music. “That’s a big loss for us this year,” Kahn said. “But our cantor has chosen familiar music, music that we hope invites people to sing along at home.”
Kahn will lead from the bimah in the Beth El sanctuary, but he’ll be alone. The congregation’s other rabbi, Rabbi Rebekah Stern, and Cantor Elaya Jenkins-Adelberg will be leading their portions of the service from home, as they have been doing since the onset of the pandemic.
“We could not find a way to sing together, and that’s core to what we do,” Kahn said. “But all three of us will be on screen at the same time. And members of the community will do a reading or light candles or have an aliyah, and they’ll come into the screen and then go off again.”
At Congregation Rodef Sholom, a Reform synagogue in San Rafael with 1,000 member households, the main services will be livestreamed, but congregants will gather in small groups for five different tashlich ceremonies, and there will be two group beach mikvah events, an annual tradition at Rodef Sholom.
Rabbi Lara Regev, the director of Jewish learning and living, said that livestreamed Friday night services have been working well for months now, so it felt natural to do the same for the High Holidays. “They feel lovely and homegrown, and that’s important; it feels like Rodef Sholom. It’s not 100 percent polished like some synagogues want.
“There will also be montage videos where lots of people get to talk about their hopes for the new year, so our community gets to see each other, because that’s missing for so many people.”
The diverse approaches, services and programs detailed in this article are a small slice of Jewish life in Northern California. J. spoke with leaders of 10 Jewish communities, but there are well over 100 in the region. Each is reckoning with an unprecedented High Holiday season in its own way, each one hoping to be inscribed, once again, in the Book of Life and go on to a sweet new year.