Things could be worse, and have been. But they certainly could be better.
The upcoming year 5782 will hardly be the first in Jewish history of which that could be said.
For the rabbis and cantors who have been planning how to conduct services for a second pandemic High Holiday season, disappointment that the resurgence of covid and its delta variant requires more caution than was expected at the beginning of the summer is mixed with relief that with most adult and teen congregants vaccinated, things aren’t as dire as they were last year.
The result, as revealed in conversations with several area rabbis, are services that will be conducted in many cases both online and in person, but frequently in outdoor tents rather than in sanctuaries.
“Our plans have definitely changed and are a work in progress,” Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Congregation Bnai Keshet in Montclair said. His congregation is affiliated with Reconstructing Judaism. “We had been expecting that we might be able to have a fuller house than we’re going to ultimately have. And we had been expecting that by requiring everyone to be vaccinated, we could have an area of seating that could be unmasked.”
That was then.
“Since the surge in the delta variant, we’ve decided we’re going to further limit the number of attendees,” he said.
Where normally 600 people might gather in the sanctuary, “now we’re going to be about 325, so we can maintain spacing between family groups and individuals.” All attendees will have to show proof of vaccination, and will have to wear masks.
“One unfortunate, hard thing, is that kids who are under 12 won’t be able to participate in our adult services,” because they can’t be vaccinated. Instead, the junior service will be outside in a tent.
The synagogue’s decisions have been guided by a health committee, which includes doctors and people who work in epidemiology.
“State and national recommendations are always our starting place,” Rabbi Teperman said.
They’ve also been guided by a number of surveys of the congregants.
And when it comes to returning to in-person services, a fair number of congregants aren’t yet ready. “It’s really clear to us that we probably not have more than 50 percent of us coming in person,” Rabbi Tepperman said.
As a result, “We continue to put in energy to make sure we have fully accessible and engaging streaming services.”
Before the pandemic, streaming services were being planned, but had not yet been implemented. “Since the pandemic, we’ve had nonstop steaming services.”
There’s a further change in store for those coming to worship in person: they have to register in advance, in a procedure that includes showing proof of vaccination. That’s a break with long-standing Bnai Keshet tradition. “Since the first Rosh Hashanah service we held, we’ve never turned anybody away. We’ve never required tickets. Our congregation has always been one hundred percent open door to our High Holiday services,” Rabbi Tepperman said.
But not this year.
Nonetheless, Rabbi Tepperman feels “good about the direction things are going in. It’s easy to forget that last year we had a hundred percent of services online — with a few exceptions. We were able to do community shofar blowing and other outdoor gatherings. The idea that on Rosh Hashanah morning and Yom Kippur morning we will be at close to 50 percent capacity is delightful. We have to be very aware of the fact that there are a lot of families for whom showing up in person would not feel safe, even if we had double the space.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge that people are worn out by the pandemic. It’s important to remember that it won’t be here forever, but we still continue to make choices right now that are loving and caring and recognizing of the different kinds of perspectives and levels of safety required to meet the needs of everybody. We have a deep obligation to do that as best we can, whether they’re praying in person or praying at home. I don’t think we’re well served by the eagerness to go to the next stage that many people feel.”
Rabbi Adrienne Rubin said that Springfield’s Conservative-affiliated Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael prides itself on being a welcoming, accessible place — it even has an elevator up to the bima, she notes. So as planning got underway, it was clear that there would be some members who would be more comfortable with online services. “We were already planning for hybrid services, and having at least one service for each holiday that was fully online,” which would allow for the interactivity of a Zoom conferencing call as opposed to just the passive consumption of a video stream. “That face to face feeling is very important, and it’s missing in the livestream,” she said.
Then came the delta variant, and the congregation decided that holding the main services indoors “was probably not a safe alternative.”
They already had planned to hold family services outdoors, catering to children of pre-bar amd bat mitzvah and pre-vaccine age and their parents. Then the decision was made to move the main services outside too.
“We’re renting a tent,” Rabbi Rubin said. “We’re requiring a vaccination for the main services. Everyone will be masked, the chairs will be set with distance between them.”
Rabbi Rubin and her fellow clergy members will be masked. “We could take a covid test and fully isolate and quarantine, but we feel it’s not such a big deal to wear a mask. It’s caring for other people.”
Here too, people are being asked to register in advance.
“That’s one of the biggest changes — other than everything,” she said. “People aren’t used to registering in advance. We want to know who is coming in case we have a positive case reported to us later, to contact trace. Our synagogue takes pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, very seriously.
“The families in our community are very safety conscious. Almost every congregant I’ve spoken to was vaccinated as soon as they were able. I feel blessed that I’m with a group of people who put each other’s health and welfare above their own convenience. To me, that is the essence of what the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh is all about, that we live in an interconnected world and we may think it’s just alone but it never is.
“People are being cautious, and that’s smart. I have colleagues in Florida and Texas and Louisiana who have been slammed and it’s just heartbreaking — almost all people who were not vaccinated.”
Besides the advance registration, the service times are shifting, to enable the family and main services to be held sequentially in the tent, rather than as they were in the old days, simultaneously in different spaces. (How big a tent? How many people will show up? More if the weather is wonderful? Fewer if it’s too hot or too rainy? How to know in advance?)
One of the biggest changes in moving the main service outdoors is that it won’t be livestreamed. “We weren’t ready to trust the wifi in the parking lot behind the building” where the tent is being set up, Rabbi Rubin said. Instead, she and her colleagues are updating the video they used for last year’s services. She has recorded a new sermon. Last year’s service featured more than a hundred members of the community participating in pre-recorded roles, including as Torah and haftarah readers.
“We’ll be streaming the video to YouTube like we did last year,” she said; the stream will include a mixture of footage from last year as well as new content.
The Rosh Hashanah evening service, however, will be fully on Zoom. “We also do a Rosh Hashanah seder that is very interactive,” and that allows congregants to connect with family members all over the country.
There will also be a Zoom family service, parallel to the live one in the parking lot tent.
In recent months, Friday night services have been taking place in person and on Zoom, Rabbi Rubin said. Two thirds of the people are coming via Zoom. The synagogue is installing a big TV with a Zoom account in the sanctuary, “so people in the congregation will be able to see the people on Zoom, so we still feel like a community.”
Rabbi Rubin was hired by Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael right after the pandemic hit. She’s been guiding its evolution without looking back at how it was in the Before Times, because she wasn’t there then. She’s guided instead by the image of a great rabbinic figure from 2000 years ago. “Just as when Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai helped Judaism evolve after the Second Temple was destroyed, we are evolving. We have to figure out how we keep synagogue life vibrant and relevant and accessible. For the time being, this is what works for people. If can give someone the opportunity to have Shabbat, and to have Shabbat be a mindful part of their life, and the way that they do it is they come to services while at home electronically, I want them to come to services,” she said.
And she has found real gains in this new world.
“A woman who came to a Passover seder I hosted online last year said she had not been to a Passover seder in 10 years. She doesn’t drive at night, and she didn’t want to tell people she didn’t drive at night. It was very emotional for her to actually be at a seder again.
“After hearing that, I decided that every year going forward I will offer at least one seder on Zoom. Even if there’s only one person for whom this is their contact, their connection to Judaism, it’s worth my time.”
Rabbi Rubin has prepared a two-page guide for congregants to prepare a “mikdash m’at,” a sacred space in their home, “where they could have their online services free from distractions, to make this a little different.”
The guide recommends preparing the prayer space in advance, and ideally establishing it somewhere other than where you use the computer for work. She suggests putting a white tablecloth on the table that will be used for the computer or device, and adding “meaningful objects, such as a shofar, candlesticks, or kiddush cup. Consider hanging a decorative work on the wall that you will see during services.” She further recommends leaving your kippah, tallit, and machzor there for the week, and to “say a kavanah — an intention — to bless the space and set it apart as your mikdash m’at.” She included a brief kavanah service in the PDF guide she sent to congregants.
Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg is the senior rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham, an unaffiliated, somewhere-between-Reform-and-Conservative synagogue in Livingston.
Last year’s High Holiday services there were all “pre-recorded,” he said. “We heavily produced it in August. It was quite a remarkable experience — but I would like to never do that again.”
For this year, the plan was to do everything in person, and take advantage of the synagogue’s “massive” sanctuary to allow some space for people who preferred to social distance while the others would sit more normally spaced. It would be only for vaccinated people — or those willing to test —and the family services would be outside in a tent.
And then came delta — and congregants began to vote with their feet in favor of online services.
“There are the facts on the ground of the virus that we know,” Rabbi Vaisberg said “We also know what we don’t know yet. And there’s people’s comfort level, and you can’t argue with their comfort level.
So: Everything will be streamed. There will be an outdoor option. Even when they are outside, people will have to wear masks. Some of the honors, like aliyot, will be prerecorded, to include congregants who aren’t comfortable coming in person.
“To be honest, while we’re hoping the Torah readers will be there, we pre-recorded those too, in case God forbid we all have to go into lockdown again. Hopefully we won’t have to use those recordings, but we’re prepared.”
In a normal, pre-covid year, the main sanctuary would hold 2,500 people, Rabbi Vaisberg said. Last year, when everything was online, there were 3,000 viewers. As for what the numbers will be next week, it’s impossible to say — but the synagogue did upgrade its streaming service in case that becomes the dominant format.
“People will be able to sign up until the day of,” Rabbi Vaisberg said. “We’re not going to turn away anyone if they didn’t sign up — we will turn them away if they don’t have vaccination records or testing records. Everyone will have to be masked, regardless of vaccination status.”
When the clergy are on the bima, they’ll take off their masks — “we go for testing regularly to make sure we’re not passing anything along.” But if there are other people coming to the bima, as for the Torah service, the clergy will put on their masks.
Was there anything in rabbinical school that prepared Rabbi Vaisberg for arranging for High Holidays in a pandemic?
“Learning to be fully present for the people who need us, and being compassionate in trying to make decisions with a level of rachmanus” — mercy — “and understanding,” he said.
“Everything that we’re doing is to be able to bring in the yamim noraim” — the High Holidays — “when we really need them, because we need the message that there’s always hope. It’s an incredible gift to show us that we don’t just have to stay where we are, in the hole where we dug ourselves. We can always turn things around. It’s a really important message to be able to give people.
“We have to meet people where they are, and right now they’re in a place of trauma.”
At Mount Freedom Jewish Center, an Orthodox congregation in Randolph, Shabbat services returned to their normal indoors arrangement a couple of months ago. Masking was optional for vaccinated people, Rabbi Menashe East said. “We were very optimistic.”
Now they’re not quite as optimistic. Masking again was mandated for everybody. And Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur plans, which originally called for both indoor and outdoor services, with the majority of congregants expected to daven inside while the outdoor service would primarily be for families with unvaccinated children, were scrapped.
“As of this week, we are moving our entire service outside,” Rabbi East said. “We are trying to see if we can squeeze everyone into one tent, or if we have to do multiple services.”
Last year, the congregation ran three smaller, staggered services. “Even though it was less than ideal, it felt encouraging that we were getting together,” six months into the pandemic. “This is a little more depressing, because we’re being pushed apart.”
As was the case last year, there also will be smaller satellite backyard minyanim “to accommodate people who are very cautious,” Rabbi East said.
Because Mount Freedom is an Orthodox congregation, Zoom is not an option for holiday services — though there continue to be people who attend the weekday services via Zoom. “To the degree that we can do things in person, that’s the preference,” Rabbi East said.
In the past, the Jewish Center would draw around 400 people for the peak holiday services. Last year, Rabbi East estimated, all the services combined drew probably half that number, and he is expecting similar turnout this year.
“People are very cautious,” he said. “It’s not surprising, but it’s still disappointing. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the kickoff of the year, and the source of community connections for those people who are only coming a few times a year. Those bonds get weakened. That’s a very big concern. People who have tenuous connections start to drift.
“Our messaging and encouragement this year is about trying to stay connected, to keep the bonds closer and really try to make sure everyone feels as connected as possible. We’ve doled out the roster of family names to the synagogue leadership and everyone reaches out — community members and peers.
“That’s been really important, to create a sense that everyone is in this together.”
At Congregation Ahavas Sholom, Newark’s oldest continuously operating synagogue, the High Holidays were planned as an opportunity to celebrate the congregation’s physical renewal alongside the season’s theme of spiritual renewal, Rabbi Simon Rosenbach said. The Conservative congregation was founded in 1895; its building was erected in 1923, almost a century ago. (No, Rabbi Rosenbach does not know how the congregation responded to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.) Back in those days, Newark had many wealthy congregations. “Ahavas Sholom was not one of them,” Rabbi Rosenbach said.
The seats had been bought, a century ago, from a movie or maybe vaudeville theatre. “They were uncomfortable.”
Over the summer, those seats were replaced with others that a congregant had found; a congregation on Long Island was throwing them away. Institutional overhead florescent tube lighting — certainly not part of the building’s original decor, since the technology wasn’t popularized until later — was replaced by small chandeliers. Green walls were painted white; the floor was painted and sanded.
None of this made the sanctuary any bigger; it now seats 120, with room in the back for another 100 folding chairs.
Earlier this summer, the plans were set: Capacity would be set at 100 people, sitting socially distanced; attendees would have to be fully vaccinated and masked.
And then, a couple weeks ago, as covid infections and deaths surged in this country, the congregants who had been tapped to lead services decided they didn’t want to sing before 100 people, and perhaps risk infecting them.
Outdoor service in urban Newark, on a small and slanted parking lot, with trucks and ambulances driving by, was not an option.
“So we resolved two weeks ago to do strictly Zoom,” Rabbi Rosenbach said.
“Many people miss the sanctuary, but we have to think of the safety of the congregants. Every year at Pesach we say ‘Next year in Jerusalem. We have to adapt it: Next year in Newark.’”