Though most High Holiday services are being streamed online this year, a number of Bay Area congregations will come together in person for tashlich, the ritual casting off of sins into a body of water.
While gathering for in-person services may feel too risky for some, others have decided that tashlich offers a welcome opportunity to gather in physical space.
“There’s so much need right now for people to connect, and be together,” said Rabbi Stacy Friedman of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.
The popular ritual usually takes place on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, but because this year the first day coincides with Shabbat, tashlich will be held on the second day, Sept. 20. The ceremony includes reading verses from Torah and the symbolic throwing of bread, pebbles or twigs into water (preferably containing fish).
Rodef Sholom is holding a socially distanced, in-person tashlich. To stay safe, she said, they’ll be having multiple tashlichs at several locations in order to avoid crowding.
“We have five simultaneous tashlich gatherings,” Friedman said. “That’s 175 people.”
“We’re so fortunate to be in a county with multiple bodies of water,” she said with a laugh.
Registration is required and volunteers will do temperature checks and give people assigned spots to stand. Friedman said pikuach nefesh, the concept of always putting the preservation of life before ritual adherence, is what the Reform synagogue considered first and foremost, and that it was a delicate balance of safety concerns and emotional and spiritual ones that led to the decision.
She said ongoing discussions between clergy, staff and community have helped identify “key times” when it is important to gather physically. “If people are concerned about physical safety, it’s not going to be very spiritually satisfying,” Friedman said.
Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, a Conservative synagogue, is also doing tashlich in person.
“We got in touch with the city of Berkeley health department, and we got the green light,” said Rabbi Chai Levy. “We really wanted to offer something in person, if it can be done outdoors and safely.”
People who aren’t comfortable about joining a crowd can do tashlich on their own, even at home, she said.
The synagogue has secured seven spots near water around the East Bay and is combining tashlich with the sounding of the shofar in order to bring together two important physical elements of Rosh Hashanah. Masks and social distancing will be enforced.
Other synagogues are keeping tashlich virtual this year.
A bowl of water at home — that’s what Rabbi Mychal Copeland is using to mark the ritual.
“We aren’t doing anything in person because it doesn’t feel worth the risk,” said Copeland, rabbi of San Francisco’s Sha’ar Zahav, a Reform synagogue. “I have found that when people get together thinking they are distancing, they do it well for about 10 minutes.”
Instead, Copeland and Maggid Andrew Ramer will lead an online writing exercise where participants ask themselves, “What am I carrying from our collective past and from my own past in the previous year that feels wrong to me, and that I am now ready to release?” she said.
Copeland will write hers on rice paper, which she’ll dissolve in a bowl of water at home, although she said some people may carry theirs to the ocean. She said keeping everyone safe during the pandemic conjures memories of how the community suffered during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Now the virus is different, but concerns about health and safety remain.
“What would it feel like to know we infected our members because we felt a deep need for tashlich, or our cemetery service? Nothing would have felt worth that risk,” she said.
Rabbi David Booth of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto said the Conservative synagogue’s Covid task force considered the county’s health guidelines and decided to encourage members to do tashlich at home. The synagogue sent members information on how to create a meaningful ritual on their own.
Congregations that are doing tashlich in person say there’s a clear desire among their members to come together — Rodef Sholom’s tashlich slots are all full.
Friedman herself will be leading the ritual at Blackie’s Pasture in Tiburon, which has beautiful views of the bay. The rabbi said those open vistas of water and land are a metaphor of reconnection and “a vision for the future, a vision for 5781.”
It’s a hopeful thought, and one that’s really needed right now, she said.
“It’s so hard, with the burdens we’re living amidst,” she said. “It’s really hard to have a vision for this year.”