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Stay home these High Holy Days

As Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, taught during the Cholera epidemic of 1848, none of the reasons for opening the synagogues justifies the risk
If God is everywhere, then prayer can be done anywhere. (iStock)
If God is everywhere, then prayer can be done anywhere. (iStock)

How many Jews does it take to screw in a light bulb? Opinions differ. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume the answer is four.

One to donate the light bulb. One to screw in the light bulb. One to proclaim that all Jewry stands behind this action. And, one to decry that this action will destroy Judaism as we know it.

I’ve observed congregations these past weeks and months deliberating whether to open their doors on the High Holy Days, and I can’t stop thinking about this joke and how accurate it is.

There’s a story told about Rav Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar (ethical) movement in Judaism. During the cholera epidemic of 1848, he mandated that even on Shabbat, relief work in the Jewish community had to be performed by Jews (not non-Jews, as was the custom) because saving lives was more important.

He was also reported to have eaten on Yom Kippur in front of his congregants, ordering them to follow his lead to maintain strength in the face of the epidemic.

Some traditional congregations have opened for Shabbat services and many other traditional and liberal congregations have considered hybrid in person/on Zoom High Holiday experiences.

Insanity, it is said, is when you repeat an action expecting a different result. We know enclosed spaces are breeding grounds for COVID-19. Vetting for fever, wearing masks and social distancing lessen, but do not alleviate the danger. There are many examples of disaster emerging from people congregating.

So why have some congregations decided to open and what is wrong with their reasoning?

We want in-person services to better pray to God! Of course we all know that God only resides inside brick and mortar congregations.

Prayer in a minyan allows us to recite certain prayers like mourner’s Kaddish that an individual cannot recite alone. Newsflash … Buildings have been closed for months and we adapted and saved lives. I don’t think those who have passed on suffered from a lack of Kaddish.

The High Holy Days are the most important days of the year. First, all Mitzvot (commandments) are equal. Compensate with another Mitzvah. Give more Tzedakah (charity). I haven’t eaten ice cream in years – it’s not good for me. Similarly, attending services could be bad for my health. We’ve lived with worse. We can live with this.

If God is everywhere, and everywhere the same, then prayer can be done anywhere, anytime. Yes, the experience will not be the same, but the result will be.

But I think there is an “elephant in the room” that’s motivated congregational leadership to reopen. The High Holy Day appeal is one of the most important fundraising events of the year. But it’s hard to have a High Holy Day appeal when you don’t have the High Holy Days.

Sure, many will donate – but there is a real and valid fear in our community that these past months have underscored how little most congregants need their congregations. And there is a real fear that if the closing of these buildings continues, the congregations will really close.

Many leaders believe that the solvency of their congregations trumps the safety of their congregants. After all, if you discourage those 60 and over from attending are you not admitting that there is a threat?

What would Rav Salanter say? Probably that saving lives is more important than Shabbat or the High Holy Days.

To be clear: Opening the congregations will not destroy the Jewish people, but it will put the Jews who attend at risk. No building is worth it. Stay home.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Founder and Executive Director of JSurge, an organization providing Jewish education and services to unaffiliated Jews. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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