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For the High Holidays, to Zoom or not to Zoom is not the question

Now is the time to focus on the value of personal prayer and how to utilize this time for a deeper personal connection with God
Shofar. (iStock)
Shofar. (iStock)

In 1953, at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention held at the Breakers Hotel in Atlantic City, NJ, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel delivered a talk entitled, “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer.”  He called on the rabbis there to have a Cheshbon HaNefesh, a personal accounting, in relation to the prayer lives that they are facilitating within their congregation.  After accusing the synagogue of the 1950s of becoming the graveyard where prayer is buried, he shared the following:

“The problem is not how to fill the buildings but how to inspire the hearts…The problem is not one of synagogue attendance but one of spiritual attendance. The problem is not how to attract bodies to enter the space of a temple but how to inspire souls to enter an hour of spiritual concentration in the presence of God. The problem is time, not space.”

We had become overly attuned to how many people were praying, but not sufficiently attuned to creating meaning for those people in their experiences.

As I reflect on the Jewish community’s preparations for the High Holidays this year, I can’t help but arrive at a similar conclusion.  We have been focused on the challenge of the medium, rather than on the enhancement of the message.  An overwhelming amount of the conversation’s around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has been about Zooming or not Zooming.  Utilizing a one-way livestream, or offering the chance to pray along with recordings from the congregation.  Praying in backyards or praying in shifts.  All of these questions revolve around the idea that we wish to create as close to a recreation of the normal High Holiday experience as we can, depending on the viability of different technological possibilities for different communities.

Rarely have I encountered conversation about the ways that this year is unique and requires new thinking about the essence of prayer.  I haven’t heard many focusing on the value of personal prayer and how to utilize this time for a deeper personal connection with God. We have engaged in conversation about how to create connection with our fellow congregants while physically distant, but not on how to develop a deeper connection with the Almighty.  When I was involved in a conversation about what creative approaches were being taken by non-Zooming congregations, I constantly pushed back, reminding everyone there that whether one is Zooming one’s services or not does not preclude the ability to think creatively about how best to meet our community’s spiritual needs at this time.  Contrary to Canadian thinker, Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not always the message.  We need to start with the message and then find the medium to share it.

If there was ever a time to reassess the effectiveness of the High Holiday liturgy at accomplishing the objectives that we hope for our communities, this year is it.  So much is changing to begin with, this must be the moment to create new and meaningful rituals that can fully actualize our vision for the season.  This year, of all years, is the time when we can try actualize Rabbi Heschel’s vision of prayer.

Here are some of the projects that we are taking on this year to attempt to meet the spiritual needs of our community:

We are coordinating with three other synagogues outdoor shofar blowings in locations all around our city on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. This perpetuates our synagogue’s commitment to community both by bringing different spiritual communities together but also by bringing people together as well.

We are setting up a Zoom for the end of Yom Kippur (Maariv/Havdalah/Shofar) not only so the community can share in the experience together, but also to encourage people who are home alone to share their break-fast together.

We have created a DIY personal Tashlikh experience using dissolvable paper that not only allows people who are not comfortable coming to a public place to participate in the ritual, but also creates a potentially even more meaningful ritual for us to practice.

We have created Spotify playlists with both liturgical music and non-liturgical music for people to listen to in order to get into the spirit of the season.

We have created lesson plans that can be executed by individuals and families at home including one on ethical wills.  On the day when we are called to experience our own mortality, what better way to reflect on that theme than by writing about what is most important to us and how we wish to be remembered.

And we are also providing a live stream and recordings of the service for people to utilize so that there remains the familiar and comfortable as well.

But with all of these new opportunities in place, not only do we believe that this year can be the most spiritually fulfilling yet, but we also believe that we are creating a community that can continue to actualize that vision for prayer and spirituality in the years to come, no matter when 2021 and beyond may bring.  The medium may change, but the message of what true prayer is remains, and can continue to inspire us for many years to come.

About the Author
Eytan Kenter serves as the Senior Rabbi of Kehillat Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Ottawa, Ontario.
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