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Creativity to shape ‘radically different’ High Holidays
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Creativity to shape ‘radically different’ High Holidays

As the pandemic persists, synagogues are planning a High Holiday season like none before. Some may choose to hold services via a video conferencing platform only; others will offer a hybrid affair, allowing a small component of in-person attendees. Either way, said Rabbi Benjamin Adler, religious leader at the Conservative Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, “we will all have to rethink the High Holidays; they are going to be radically different.”

Adler chooses to look at the positive aspects of a difficult situation. “When you face constraints, sometimes that’s when you have the most creativity,” he said. “In a way it is good to be constantly challenging our assumptions of what Judaism looks like and what it should be.”

At Temple Micah also in Lawrenceville, services will be held entirely online. The unaffiliated, egalitarian synagogue surveyed its congregants to gauge interest and help Rabbi Elisa Goldberg and other leaders reach a decision about what to offer. For her members, said Goldberg, feeling part of the community was of the highest concern, but also important were hearing the rabbi’s sermon and including music in the service.

Goldberg is considering sending out a daily email and video during the 10 Days of Awe, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, “with a short teaching or a musical piece of the service, to give people a little taste.”

Temple Micah members also expressed a desire to see and hear their fellow congregants during online services. As in past years, service attendees will be asked to share reflections on a particular theme, but this year they will record their thoughts ahead of Rosh HaShanah; Goldberg will create a video montage to play during the service or send out to congregants beforehand. She said she might also ask people to take photos of themselves — perhaps eating the traditional apples and honey treat at home while holding up a sign with New Year greetings to share in a slide show.

“When everyone does something active, it engages them,” Goldberg said. “It’s always a question during a service, but even more when we don’t have physical proximity to activate our sense of community.”

Rabbi Aaron Gaber said he plans to add more personal interaction with his congregants by blowing the shofar in a different part of the community every day during the month of Elul, leading up to Rosh HaShanah. For the the High Holiday services for his shul, Conservative Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, Pa., Gaber is planning to run different online channels simultaneously, to meet the differing needs of his congregants.

“In normal times, people self-edit themselves about how long they come to services,” Gaber said. “My expectation is people will pop in and pop out of activities, and I want to give them permission to do so. My job as rabbi is to help my congregation nourish their souls during High Holidays.”

One channel will feature a traditional, though abbreviated, Conservative service in 30-minute modules of Shacharit, Torah reading, and Musaf. A second channel will replace the interactive, contemplative learning service that the synagogue regularly offers; it will include options for meditation and for diving deeper into relevant topics and prayers.

The Jewish Center in Princeton is seeking to enhance its use of Zoom and Livestream for the High Holidays. “We are looking for ways to make the services more stimulating and meaningful to people if they cannot attend services in the building,” said Randall Brett, president of the Conservative synagogue. Congregation representatives are talking to production companies that stage large events, he said, “to see if they can help us make things more interesting, so people aren’t sitting passively at a screen for three or more hours.” Cameras may be set up in different parts of the sanctuary, and certain elements of the services — like the president’s Kol Nidrei address, sermons, and divrei Torah — may be prerecorded.

Leaders of Beth El Synagogue, the Conservative congregation in East Windsor, are weighing a range of possibilities, all of which include a virtual component. Rabbi Jay Kornsgold said he hopes that at least a small contingent of worshippers will be able to attend services in person. “Sitting at home is not the same thing as coming to shul,” he said. “We feel if we can somehow do something in person, it will allow those people to have a different experience than those at home. But,” he acknowledged, “we are in uncharted territory.”

Adler of Adath Israel said his congregation is looking at two options, one with everyone participating remotely, possibly with a small number in the sanctuary, and another with more people — the number limited by social distancing requirements — in the sanctuary.

Services at Har Sinai Temple will be held remotely. Rabbi Jordan Goldson, who just took the pulpit at the Reform synagogue in Pennington, is considering ways to let people see and connect with their fellow members, perhaps as simple as having a congregational leader saying, “Good yontif; I’m so happy to be together with you today.”

Har Sinai’s choir, which is typically a big part of the temple’s High Holiday services, is working on a couple of pieces, trying to successfully bring together the individual voices recorded at home into a choral piece.

“It is an interesting time,” Goldson said. “It is challenging, but it is making us be creative in ways we haven’t been.” 

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