Lisa Silverstein
Championing a holistic approach to spirituality and physical well-being.

Survival of the Holy Days

Josh Nelson directs the production of "Unwritten"--a High Holy Day worship experience combining new media, spoken word, and powerful music.
Josh Nelson directs the production of "Unwritten"--a High Holy Day worship experience combining new media, spoken word, and powerful music. Featured: Lisa Silverstein. (Rach Domingo)

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur–in the midst of a pandemic. How did we fare?

After a full 25 hours of fasting and three (large) bites into our simple but satisfying “break the fast” meal, I decided to check out post-Yom Kippur reactions to the myriad of worship options that had saturated the internet. Not long into that perusal, I chanced upon an “I Survived the 5781 High Holy Days” t-shirt that someone manufactured to commemorate this bizarre and yet holy experience.

Still light-headed from the fast, my mind began to wander. Survive? Did we “survive” these Holy Days? Or rather, did we just witness a worship revolution that could possibly affect the way we pray for years (or perhaps decades) to come? While synagogue attendance has decreased over the past several decades, these more robust “at home” internet worship options are clearly on the rise. 

For many of us in the liberal/progressive camp, these High Holy Days were incredibly moving, meaningful, and memorable. For those with very young children who would have struggled with an in-person shul experience, the option of praying from the couch was a blessing. My most enthusiastic friends “attended” multiple services, taking full advantage of the ability to virtually hop from one synagogue to another with the click of a mouse. Some friends dedicated a separate, sacred space in their homes exclusively for worship in order to fully immerse in the significance of the day, donning white or other synagogue-appropriate attire. Jews who have felt emotionally distant from Jewish communal experiences were able to comfortably “crash the service.” Mourners reciting Kaddish in their homes were comforted by cherished photos of loved ones. Most of all, participants were overwhelmingly grateful for the sights and sounds of beloved clergy and familiar sanctuaries. Some mentioned that it was amazing how everyone had a front-row seat and could see the faces/expressions of their clergy, a view that would normally be impossible from the back rows of their sanctuaries. And there were also those who quietly snuggled pets on the couch while reciting prayers (from their “front row seats”). Many felt tremendous gratitude and positivity about the experience, and some have expressed an interest in developing further options to pray from home even after the pandemic concludes (may that day come soon…).

But there were many others who did not have such positive experiences. Some felt intense loneliness and isolation, especially those who are without children or partners in the home. Some felt empty and disappointed, unable to take a virtual “leap of faith” onto the Zoomagogue platform. For others, it was impossible not to be distracted by the household chores, the half uneaten chicken in the fridge, Candy Crush, and the constant “breaking news” (that kept popping up in the corner of my screen every few minutes). While some of our pandemic-related adjustments have been relatively easy thanks to connected fitness, grocery delivery, and Netflix, worshiping from home has been a significant challenge for many… especially during major holy day celebrations.

For clergy and other Jewish professionals who have been struggling with and dreaming about how to format, construct, produce, and broadcast these offerings for the past several months (including me), High Holy Day prep has been an eye-opening and somewhat terrifying exercise. Many said that it was “the hardest and most challenging High Holy Day season of my entire career.” Suddenly, we were forced to tear apart our customs and reconstruct them according to the limitations – and often overwhelming possibilities – of two-dimensional worship.

Some of our professionals are more tech-savvy than others, but no matter how skilled in technology one may be, panic about these Days of Awe set in moments after Pesach concluded. Countless, sleepless nights were spent worrying about what would happen if the internet failed. (Indeed, a few communities experienced colossal technical failures on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.) Some clergy were fearless, live-streaming their entire range of services. Others invested in pre-production and shaped exquisite offerings that were shared at the appropriate service times. There were plenty of hybrid options, allowing institutions to pre-record participants holding sacred Torah scrolls, reciting blessings, and offering readings.  

I have to admit, my personal experience was mixed. Due to the pandemic, I became a temporary Jew in the Pew (or perhaps more appropriately, Rabbi Grouch on the Couch) when my High Holy Day pulpit determined that the multiple worship options that they typically offer would be superfluous during the pandemic. Therefore, I spent these holidays with one of my kids (who usually doesn’t accompany me to my out of town gig), as well as my partner (who is also usually employed as a guest artist during the Holy Days) and his kids. Our collective brood grew up in the wings of massive sanctuaries/auditoriums, in green rooms, and in rabbis’ studies… essentially a part of, yet apart from the general congregation. They were mildly annoyed when we insisted that we sit on the couch together to participate in services; they are not at all used to having our undivided attention, as we typically lead prayer from our perches on sanctuary platforms. One fell asleep before the second repetition of Kol Nidre ended. The other two kids took advantage of the fact that we were davening in pajamas (admittedly, not the best parenting decision…) and played an aggressive game of footsies until we demanded a modicum of “synagogue decorum.”

But truthfully, I don’t blame them for their “inappropriate” behavior. I was in pajamas too, silently sulking that I wasn’t on a bimah while simultaneously having an out of body experience critiquing myself as I participated in a pre-recorded service on a national Jewish cable station.

In addition to watching our own production, I personally “attended” parts of over two dozen offerings over the course of the Days of Awe. Some brought joy to my heart, while others truthfully made me cringe. However, I would wholeheartedly contend that we all—every single one of us—truly did what we could to bring a sense of community, healing, wholeness, and hope to both our local communities and the greater Jewish community at large.  

No, nothing was perfect. And truthfully, it never is. But this year in particular, clergy were terribly, terribly exposed. All of our weaknesses were evident, our fallibilities revealed, our voices imperfect. The high definition cameras exposed our tiredness, regardless of whether we pre-recorded or not. And the feeling of being in the public eye, of not having a solitary moment for our own personal prayer, was amplified. One of my colleagues said she felt mortified when congregants used the chat function to make a comment about her choice of shoes (which were, in my opinion, absolutely appropriate vegan shoes for Yom Kippur…) While our Holy Day services are notoriously highly criticized and critiqued by congregants with high expectations—I’ve never seen anything quite like this.

On the other hand, I felt a massive wave of gratitude from those who were deeply moved by the intentionality and the sensitivity of their beloved clergy. And as a member of that clergy, I thank you. Thank you for your understanding, your compassion, your words of encouragement. We are so very grateful for your collective support, especially when things didn’t translate to a screen as well as we had intended.

What did we learn? How can we filter in what we loved in this new normal, while gently leaving behind old modalities that suddenly seem archaic and even gratuitous? When we are able to pray together again, will there be parts of this technologically enhanced worship that will remain with us? These are questions that must be answered by individual communities in the coming months and years. But if we are truly brave, and if we look honestly at what we have just experienced, I believe that we will find a path to a stronger communal future, filled with truly intentional worship that works seamlessly… whether one chooses to pray in person or in pajamas. 

About the Author
Lisa Silverstein is a renowned spiritual leader, yogini, musician, and Israeli dancer. Her ongoing work in the areas of spirituality, yoga, music, wellness, dance, and Jewish culture has earned her a reputation as a thought leader and cultural icon. She is founder and executive director of Positive Jewish Living, a post-denominational organization that encourages a holistic, spiritual approach to physical and emotional wellness. Rabbi Tzur received her undergraduate degree from Brandeis University and rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. After serving Arizona-based congregations for nearly fifteen years, she now divides her time between homes in San Francisco and Tel Aviv.
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