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No large High Holiday services this year. There, we’ve said it. Now what?

At a time of year when our prayers ask 'Who will live and who will die?' we would be demonstrating that we take responsibility for life and death
Illustrative: Rodef Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bisno, center, delivers his sermon with soloist Molly May, left, during an Erev Shabbat service that is being streamed live on Facebook. Friday, March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Illustrative: Rodef Shalom Rabbi Aaron Bisno, center, delivers his sermon with soloist Molly May, left, during an Erev Shabbat service that is being streamed live on Facebook. Friday, March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Join me in a thought experiment:

What if we decided and announced right now that we will not have large gatherings for the High Holy Days this fall?

We know that for many of our people it will not be safe to be out in public in September. This will be true for some of the people who most savor the High Holy Days in shul. We could decide that a time of year that is the most palpable experience of oneness, we will be in full solidarity.

We know that wearing masks, minding distance from people whose voices they are supposed to be joining, and paying attention to hygiene around prayerbooks and yarmulkes and door handles would all be distracting from the intensity that the holy days require. We have reason to believe that singing itself, in fact, is one of the more potent pathways for transmitting coronavirus across distance and into an enclosed space.

We know that if the capacity of our spaces has to be reduced to one-sixth, or one-sixtieth, we would not have the experience of large community, and our clergy won’t be able to lead six services each day with presence and kavanah.

We are learning how people recently did Seders, which are enormous and textured Jewish productions. Even if they had never prepared or led them before they found ways to do something alone, or connect with others, or stream a virtual guide in real time. They drew on our help and coordination, but did it without our presence.

We know that pikuach nefesh (saving lives) and practicing V’ahavta l’re-acha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself) are foundational to Judaism, and we have been learning how to label everything we do, don’t do, and do differently with those names.

So, what if we decided right now that we will reengineer the High Holy Days of 5781, using every tool at our disposal that is not a large in-person gathering?

We would bring to the surface that the point of the holy days is teshuvah — individual and collective reorienting and renewal and repair — and that’s not done anyway in a few days in sanctuaries. This wouldn’t be a matter of just simulating our services in a different modality. We could make teshuvah the center in ways we usually don’t. Instead of the workshops and the study groups and the discussions being add-ons, they would become the core.

At a time of year when the most powerful prayers ask, “Who will live and who will die?” we would be demonstrating that we take responsibility for life and death, in our synagogues and the wider community.

We would challenge ourselves to make community large and inclusive and tangible, but in different ways than before.

We would spare ourselves the thought of having temperature checks and turning people away, or fighting with people who refuse to wear masks. Or can you imagine having to decide who, especially among our most dedicated participants, has the privilege of attending the large service? What kind of hurt, what kind of statement about community, would people be taking away from that?

We would be acknowledging that every decision around how COVID-19 affects our synagogues has been time-consuming and exhausting, for our professionals and lay leaders. We could marshal that energy toward not a single annual happening but a two-month season, in ways that would not end but would actually generate the new year in our institutions.

And how would we do this?

Instead of a few days, the whole period of Elul and Tishrei would become our canvas.

We would present people with roadmaps for the teshuvah process — readings and prompts and practices for themselves and the people in their immediate lives.

We would set a goal of connecting with every single member and prospective member through a personal conversation.

We might set up shofar tours, the way school teachers are now going around neighborhoods today, so that the sound is heard by every last person at their home. We might organize group gatherings by rivers and streams for Tashlich ceremonies.

We would bring people together in small groups, in person if possible or on Zoom if necessary – for mussar reflection and work, for Torah learning, to listen and talk to a caring professional about a theme or practice related to change or renewal.

We would relaunch our Chesed (caring) Committees to refocus on our connection to the most vulnerable — the people who would still be confined because of medical condition or age, the people who have lost income, the people suffering from ongoing stresses or the aftereffects of this spring and summer.

We could have online traditional services and alternative services on the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We could create pre-recorded guides that people would bring in their homes or outside to the woods to lead them through a service, with the best of our music and teaching. We could have smaller prayer gatherings on the model of Selichot, through the month of Elul, throughout the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in and around Sukkahs during Tishrei.

We could as leaders spend the month of Elul talking to our congregants and asking what they are thinking these days about friendship, connection, community and quiet.

Some people might choose to gather in safe groups wearing masks — to make that a shared experience and grapple with that, meditate on what it has done to us. Others might choose individual experiences or online ones. Given a whole month, many might do some of each.

We wouldn’t do all this alone, congregation by congregation. It’s not possible. We could get to work now developing collaborations: the communities in a city or region, or groups around the country or the world with similar philosophies. These collaboratives could partner with Jewish musicians and teachers and online providers based anywhere. We could build together Elul platforms of daily and even hourly online events and resources.

We could finally all do the work we have been avoiding, of getting to the core of what our communities are about and for — or could be.

Do we dare?

Of course there are also good reasons not to give up our gatherings if we are allowed to have them. We might be able to do teshuvah work on our own — but there is power in the large communal gathering, and there is music that moves us that can’t be entirely replicated for everyone on an individual basis or even in small groups.

We didn’t say after Tree of Life that we would refuse to gather until we could reduce all risk to zero, or until everyone felt safe.

And let’s be honest — the High Holy Days are part of the business model for most of us — whether through ticket fees for guests or the value our members perceive in the annual services.

But the thought experiment would challenge us to question even some of these assumptions. Are our large services actually community-building for people beyond the regulars — and what do we have to do to make them more so? Could we provide two months of “value” so compelling that the financial situation of the synagogue would in fact be transformed for the better?

Even if we can and do have large High Holy Day services this fall, there are other things we can and ought to do. They will make whatever Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we do have better, and at the same time equip us to be better synagogues year-round.

So join me in the thought experiment, even if where you land is to have big services if that’s possible:

What if we decided right now that we will not have large gatherings for the High Holy Days this fall?

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett serves the Jewish community of southern New Hampshire and nearby Massachusetts through Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. He blogs at rabbijon.net and Rabbi Jon’s Podcasts are available through Apple and Podbean. He is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the organizer of howtobepresident.org, an initiative to transform how we choose a president by asking better questions.
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