Unlike Passover, with its tradition of at-home Seders that translated well to Zoom in the spring, the Jewish High Holy Days have a strong emphasis on hours spent inside of a synagogue. You might be wondering — whether you belong to a synagogue year-round or scrambled each fall to find a temporary one — how you can observe Rosh Hashana (which starts the night of Sept. 18) and Yom Kippur (the night of Sept. 27) from home.
Good news: Because of the pandemic, conservative, reform and nontraditional synagogues are streaming services — available free, and to nonmembers — from their mostly empty sanctuaries. But if formal prayer isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways, some of them virus-inspired, to celebrate safely.
“Crisis is painful, but I think we’re seeing the Jewish community reconfigure,” says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish group in North America. “People can really take the resources and shape something that feels personally meaningful.”
Here are some options.
Follow a digital service.
First, about those services: If you’re not a fan of whatever local synagogue you attended in the past (maybe because its real appeal was free High Holy Day tickets), this year you can go global. Rabbi Jacobs said many Jews have been tapping into Shabbat services in Israel during the pandemic or tuning in to a temple in whatever time zone better fits the time of day they want to pray.
Don’t think you can sit in front of a screen all day? Take heart: Most rabbis know you can’t. Almost all the services in the United States will be shorter for practical reasons. Because the sanctuaries are empty except for the clergy, there is no processing through the synagogue with the Torah, or people coming back and forth to the bimah, or altar. But many services have also been cut deliberately to help with screen oversaturation. At Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, N.J., services will be cut roughly in half, said the temple’s rabbi, Dan Selsberg. (No one is skipping Avinu Malkeinu, the prayer in which Jews ask God to “remove the plague”; this year’s service, Rabbi Selsberg said, “is something of a greatest hits.”)
Many synagogues have already taped much of the services, particularly the portions with singing — a notorious vector for the spread of Covid — to avoid the challenge of having musicians and the clergy team together in a confined space. At Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, Calif., which recorded most of its Yom Kippur services in late August, the cantorial soloist Elana Jagoda Kaye sang from the temple’s “fireside room” on a Zoom hookup while members of her five-piece band played in the building’s social hall (and the senior rabbi, Dennis Eisner, fasted as he would normally do on Yom Kippur).
Congregation Rodef Shalom in Denver and other synagogues are introducing musical instruments for the first time. Beyond the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn trumpet blown dozens of times on Rosh Hashana and then to conclude Yom Kippur, the piano and guitar will be played, to help evoke the emotions that arise from chanting and singing together.
“The piano becomes another voice, and it’s essential to the process of feeling something,” said Rachel Kobrin, Rodef Shalom’s rabbi.
Hear the shofar.
Because of fears the ram’s horn might be a superspreader, some conservative synagogues are holding small in-person shofar services, often at local parks. Conservative rabbis question whether hearing the shofar over the internet counts as actually hearing it, said Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman, whose conservative Brith Sholom Jewish Center in Erie, Pa., is offering a drive-up Shofar blast in the parking lot. Meanwhile, New York City’s Central Synagogue — a reform congregation that has livestreamed its services free since 2008 — has prerecorded some shofar blasts.
One recorded blast at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York uses the shofar from the Auschwitz concentration camp, which has special resonance this year.
“The shofar from Auschwitz was blown at a time when the holidays were being celebrated and observed under the rarest of circumstances, under the most duress,” said Daniel Mutlu, Central Synagogue’s cantor. “To use it during this pandemic creates a through-line of that same kind of dedication to observing the holidays no matter where we find ourselves.”
Whatever service you choose, watch on a TV screen instead of a computer or phone, so that you won’t be getting alerts that might take you out of the moment. Rabbi Selsberg recommends singing along, the same way you might boo or cheer at the screen during a sporting event even though the players can’t hear you. “You want to be emotionally invested,” he said. “You have to participate in order to have the whole experience.” (Many prayer-book texts are available free online.)
If you can’t face another screen, Sharon Kleinbaum, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a synagogue in Manhattan for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews, suggests closing your eyes and listening — and napping, if that’s what you need.
“If you can get a few minutes of deep sleep, I feel like that’s a holy thing,” she said. “There’s so much sleep deprivation.” (C.B.S.T., as Rabbi Kleinbaum’s congregation is known, usually holds free-to-all services for some 4,000 people at the Javits Convention Center. This year’s will mostly be just C.B.S.T.’s two clergy and a music director, livestreamed from the Chelsea synagogue.)
Go beyond the synagogue.
You might also consider giving the spot from which you plan to watch a makeover for the holiday — maybe clearing your desk, covering it with a white tablecloth and placing pictures on it of the family you might normally be with this time of year. Haggadot.com, a nonprofit site for crowdsourcing the Passover prayer book, recently debuted the [email protected] website, whose offerings include a free webinar for creating a simple altar. Rebecca Missel, Haggadot.com’s director of partnerships and operations, plans to use the radiator (currently turned off) in her Jersey City apartment. She will place a shelf on top of it, draping it with scarves, then decorating with family mementos, including a beloved cat figurine of her grandmother’s and a pair of candlesticks her family smuggled out of Hungary after World War II.
If you want to avoid services — or simply want more ways to observe — several holiday traditions lend themselves well to being done outside of synagogue. Tashlich, the symbolic casting away of sins on Rosh Hashana, is usually done outside by a body of water even when a global health crisis is not ongoing. But with many parks limiting group sizes even outdoors, synagogues are including birdseed (the more eco-friendly version of the traditional bread crumbs) and Tashlich instructions in holiday baskets being sent to members. [email protected] also offers downloadable prayers and guided meditations, and you can throw pebbles in whatever nearby water is available, including a kiddie swimming pool. Another option: Writing down your sins on rice paper, which dissolves in water. (On Amazon, it’s often referred to as “spy paper.”)
There is also the Rosh Hashana Seder, which is more like an elevated Shabbat dinner than the often lengthy Passover Seder. (“Seder” simply means order.) If you’ve never heard of this tradition (which is mentioned in the Talmud), you’ve already held a mini version of one if you’ve ever dipped apples in honey for a sweet new year, said Vanessa Ochs, a rabbi and professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia.
Before Rosh Hashana dinner is served — or tapas-style during the meal — you eat fruits or vegetables linked to a particular Jewish value or wish this time of year, like black-eyed peas or fenugreek to symbolize blessings increasing. Online you can find dozens of suggested ingredients, many involving puns on Hebrew, Aramaic and, these days, English. (Some people have raisins on celery — “a raise in salary.”) Feel free to riff: Rabbi Ochs, dislikes having a fish head (symbolizing the head of the year, and also being a leader) at her table, so she substitutes Swedish fish candy.
Finally, keep in mind that “observe” is relative — anything goes if it feels right to you.
“We’re really encouraging people to take the core of the holiday and do what Jews have done for 3,000 years and be creative,” Rabbi Jacobs said. He said you can go for a walk and think about the message of the holidays, or have a conversation with a friend or family member about beginning anew. You could also perform acts of kindness toward people who are confined because of the health crisis — for example, taking “exceedingly good care” of an older neighbor, he said.
Some families are forming pods for services, with the 10 adults required for a minyan, or quorum (with all the associated children). Aviva Pearlman, a sixth-grade teacher in Denver, is borrowing a Torah from her synagogue, prayer shawls and books (and a shofar!) from friends and hosting a few families, all masked up, in her backyard.
Ms. Pearlman, who this year switched to teaching online, said doing the High Holy Days virtually felt like one screen too many: “I really wanted to come together and meet with other people in three dimensions.”