With her cellphone camera propped up, a woman walks a few yards away, preparing to record herself. With her back turned, she begins to sway, chanting in Hebrew for a few minutes, her voice muffled by the wind. Then she blows the shofar.
Marilyn Heiss has made a video like this every day during Elul, the current Hebrew month and the last of the Jewish calendar year, which culminates in Rosh Hashanah.
Before the pandemic, Heiss was a regular at morning minyan at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom, where in a normal year she would hear the shofar daily during the monthlong run-up to the High Holidays. Instead, she is going to the top of Billy Goat Hill in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood to record her videos, which she then posts to Facebook. About 40 to 60 people view them each day.
Though Heiss is a member and layleader at Beth Sholom and a part-time staffer at The Kitchen, her shofar videos are “not affiliated with anybody. It’s just me deciding that I’m just going to go and do it,” she said.
“There’s something about getting into this as a daily thing, that counts down to the High Holidays. In this era, we lose track of time.”
Heiss is not the only one finding new ways to hear and connect with the shofar this year.
Margo Friestadt has been one of the ba’alei tekiah, shofar blowers, at Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco for years. Now, throughout Elul, she has organized several fellow Or Shalom members in her Bernal Heights neighborhood to step outside and blow a shofar around the same time each morning.
Freistadt’s hope was that they’d all be able to hear each other, but that hasn’t panned out. The only other person she can hear (and see) is her next-door neighbor. Nevertheless, she has found it to be a fulfilling experience.
“It’s fun and totally different from doing it in shul. You’re outside being in public, people who are not Jewish are walking by or poking their heads out the window to enjoy it,” she said.
Freistadt’s rabbi, Rabbi Katie Mizrahi, said the gesture builds upon other expressions of solidarity seen in recent months around the country, and around the world.
“We called whoever we can call to sound the shofar at the same time every day during Elul as a kind of echo of the public singing and pot banging and balcony operettas happening throughout the pandemic,” she said.
Mizrahi thinks one reason that people are latching onto the shofar this year is the need to call out to those around them, even though they can’t get close. “So the idea is to find ways through public sound-making that we can connect with our neighbors and one another and ritualize it,” Mizrahi said.
The San Francisco resident has been blowing the shofar at home with her children, 7 and 9. “This year they’ve been very enthusiastic about it because the whole synagogue collection of shofars is in my house right now.”
Hearing the shofar throughout the month of Elul is one thing, but hearing it during the High Holidays themselves is, for many, a highlight of the season.
Many communities will not sound the shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah because it falls on Shabbat this year, but some are making public plans for the following days.
The Oshman Family JCC of Palo Alto has created a national campaign called #ShofarTogether, which is co-sponsored by JCC of the East Bay, Peninsula Jewish Community Center, JCCSF, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, Hillel of Silicon Valley, Hillel of Stanford and a number of other organizations around the country.
Participants will sound their own shofars from their windows, porches or balconies at 7 p.m. each day during the 10 Days of Repentance beginning on Rosh Hashanah and ending the day before Yom Kippur, Sept. 19-26.
“The program has reached thousands of people online” through a Facebook event and the many local organizations spreading the word in their communities, said Andrea Longini, communications director at the OFJCC. “We’re hoping that people will post a video of themselves participating and sharing the moment together and use the hashtag #ShofarTogether.”
Vered Cohen, administrator of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, has organized 16 Bay Area Jewish organizations, including synagogues, Berkeley Hillel and Afikomen Judaica, to take part in a public shofar blowing at 3 p.m. on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The organizations have spread the word, and currently there are 53 locations — mostly in the East Bay, plus a couple on the Peninsula and one in San Francisco — where people can go to hear the shofar in person on Sept. 20. Cohen created a Google map identifying the locations.
“The High Holidays for Jews all over the world are significant,” said Cohen. “The shofar is an experience that we share as Jews everywhere. For me it translates to a kind of sound healing. When you hear the shofar, you feel it in your body. You don’t need to know the Hebrew or the prayers — it connects us all.”