Press "Enter" to skip to content

Pandemic inspires creativity and collaboration during Jewish High Holidays



During these High Holidays, Rabbi Leah Lewis will do something she’s never done before.

The spiritual leader at Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach will wrap her temple’s Torah scroll in white fabric, secure it in the backseat of her Infiniti SUV, and make house calls so people can see and hear from the scroll that has graced many a High Holiday, as well as bar and bat mitzvahs at the synagogue. She’ll also take a ram’s horn or shofar, which is blown this time of year as an auspicious sound to herald the Jewish New Year.

Need to connect spiritually

The coronavirus has thrown a damper so far in this year’s religious celebrations, from Easter and Passover to Ramadan. But, now the challenge continues for the Jewish community as it heads into its most sacred and spiritual holidays — Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown Friday, Sept. 18, and Yom Kippur, which marks the end of the holy days on Sept. 28.

This year, synagogues around Southern California, have come up with ingenious ways to ease the pain of not being able to celebrate as a community with joyous gatherings, festive food, cultural events and, most importantly, the inability to seek spiritual succor in their house of worship during a time of global turmoil and suffering.

“People miss their synagogue and the synagogue misses them,” said Lewis, whose synagogue has been online since pandemic-related shutdowns began. “So, we’re taking the Torah and shofar into homes of our members who are longing for that three-dimensional connection. We’ve got so many requests already. And I’m excited to do it because we want people to know that for those who want more, we are here to connect in any way humanly possible.”

Lewis knows it can be hard to replicate the grandeur of a live High Holiday service via Zoom, but she’s going to try.

“I missed the class in rabbinical school about film production, but I’m getting a crash course in it,” she said with a laugh.

Rabbi Leah Lewis who leads Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach during a prerecorded service, which will be broadcast via Zoom during the High Holidays. (Photo courtesy of Temple Menorah).

Sound of the shofar

Rabbi Cassi Kail, who leads Temple Beth El in San Pedro, said her synagogue will have a drive-thru challah bread and honey cake pickup as well as a drive-thru shofar night Sunday, when people can physically distance and blow the ram’s horn. The end of the horn will be masked for safety, she said.

“The sound will be a little muffled, but we’re happy we can at least hear the sound,” Kail said.

Kail’s synagogue is participating in what’s known as the “Shofar Wave,” when a number of synagogues in the region will blow the shofar to welcome the new year, an effort launched by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“One of the most important things during Rosh Hashanah is hearing the sound of the shofar,” said Jay Sanderson, the federation’s president. “Since people are not going to be able to gather, it would be both symbolic and provide great meaning for people to hear the clarion call of the shofar, which has been heard for centuries. We hope it brings the community some comfort.”

Sanderson said that while a vast majority of synagogues are doing virtual services, some Orthodox congregations that don’t use technology during the holidays are more likely to find ways to gather in person.

Rabbi Rebeccah Yussman, director of religious school and community programs at Temple Menorah, left, and Jonathan Molod, a synagogue member, blowing the shofar on the right. Molod lives in Pennsylvania, but was able to participate online. (Photo courtesy of Temple Menorah)

Longing for personal connection

The Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Newport Beach will hold in-person services under an “open tent” by the Back Bay, said Rabbi Reuven Mintz, who added that a large number of congregants wanted to get back to in-person services. So, for the past couple of weeks, he said, they’ve been testing outdoor services that are “safe, shady and short.”

For the High Holidays, Mintz said they’ll have two to three “abbreviated” services each day. For example, the Rosh Hashanah service, which typically runs 2 1/2 hours, will be kept to an hour this year, but the synagogue will have repeat services so more people can attend. Attendance will be strictly limited for each service so distancing can be maintained, the rabbi said. Those under the tent will maintain physical distancing and be required to wear masks, he said.

“It’s more important this year for people to be able to come out in a safe way, connect and pray,” Mintz said. “Many are reaching out for spiritual connection, and doing it this way gives us the opportunity to infuse the services with a sense of meaning and purpose.

Learning to do things differently

For many, these High Holidays will remain the strangest in their lifetime. Carolee Jaspan, who has been a member of Temple Beth El in Riverside for 40 years, also has run the youth group for many years now. This year, the children did a prerecorded reading from the Five Books of Moses, which will be played during Zoom holiday services.

Temple Beth El will also have a drive-thru shofar service Saturday evening. The other in-person event will be a Tashlich service at a local park. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people traditionally proceed to a body of running water and symbolically let go of the sins of the past year.

While Jaspan does enjoy learning how to do Zoom and watching services online, she says, she does miss “being there with everyone.”

“One of the things I like best is when we read the Torah at the temple and march around with the Torah scrolls,” she said. “That’s the most fun for me. It’s the best time because I see everyone, I see all my friends and give them a kiss. Not being to do that this year will be hard.”

Jaspan said she’ll also miss not being to host a big dinner for family members in her home. And she’ll miss singing with others.

“Well, I’ll just put myself on mute and sing along during the Zoom services, I guess,” she said with a laugh.

Melissa Miller of Huntington Beach is the coordinator of the Jewish Federation of Orange Couny’s PJ Library program, which offers free Jewish children’s books. The parent group that is part of this program has been organizing virtual challah bread bakes, apples and honey tasting and other activities to keep the spirit of the holidays alive, Miller said.

“It’s strange, and, oddly, it’s completely normal,” she said of the experience. “We’re together, but physically apart.”

In some ways, for parents of young children, it’s been easier to get together through virtual events.

“We’re seeing people and families we’ve never seen before,” she said.

This year, synagogues have not been charging for High Holiday services, which are usually ticketed events. Rabbi Kail said it would not be right to charge at a time when the pandemic is affecting everyone financially.

“We just want people to be able to have access,” she said. “We’re encouraging people to make donations. But, our main goal is to create a meaningful service because people need that connection more than ever this year.”

Source: Orange County Register

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *