virtual high holidays

Rabbi Jeremy Schneider and cantorial soloist Emily Kaye livestream Shabbat services from the Temple Kol Ami sanctuary on Friday, March 20.

This year, the High Holidays will be taking on a new look in some congregations across Greater Phoenix. Some will celebrate over Zoom or on YouTube, with each family following along from home. Others will attend services with masks and empty seats, or stay home entirely.

Three synagogues — Beth Ami Temple, Temple Kol Ami and Congregation Kehillah — announced that services for the High Holidays will be held exclusively online.

“There’s definitely a feeling of sadness and loss that we won’t be in person as we face this new reality,” said Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami. “But the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, the mitzvah of saving life, takes precedent. And we have to be responsible for the health and safety of others.”

At Beth Ami Temple, the decision to hold services online was made to protect congregants.

“It’s a decision our board made after a lot of careful thought, and I think congregants have been completely understanding,” said Rabbi Allison Lawton of Beth Ami. “We serve a relatively older community at our synagogue, and so the concern for the safety and health of our congregants obviously surpassed any other need we had.”

For Beth Joseph Congregation, socially distant services for the High Holidays will have to observe the traditional restrictions: no driving, no smart phones or computers. Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs, Beth Joseph’s senior rabbi, hopes to be able to hold High Holiday services in person in September, with modifications: masks, 10-foot social distancing, a limited number of participants and abbreviated services.

“Both for those of us that will be able to attend services in person and of course those that will not, it will be very different,” Isaacs said. “But as a nation, the Jewish people has weathered many similar challenges before.”

He noted that the pandemic is also pushing Beth Joseph and other synagogues to redouble their efforts to reach community members and to examine their role in community life.

“The restrictions currently hindering Jewish life in synagogues, temples and shuls provide a crucial opportunity to reimagine the role of these institutions. As important as communal tefilah (prayer) and services are, they are but a small part of Jewish life,” Isaacs said. “The pandemic pushes our synagogues to become what they should be at all times: organizations that inspire and teach us how to build Jewish families, Jewish homes and live Jewishly in the entirety of our lives.”

Congregations that are planning online services are also taking this opportunity to reimagine the role of the synagogue.

“It’s not just taking what you do all the time and putting it online.

It’s realizing that online looks different and feels different,” said Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman of Congregation Kehillah. “This is true of High Holiday services, it’s true of Shabbat services, it’s true of our classes, of our religious schools and of Jewish life in general.”

This year, the questions Schneider is asking himself involve some of the most basic aspects of High Holiday services: why are things done this way? What needs to be delivered and what can be withheld? And what are new and different ways to bring the message of the High Holidays to people in an online format?

“Sometimes we get into the rut of doing the same thing over and over, year after year, and I can see this is a glass half full, as a chance to reimagine and rethink what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Schneider said.

While Beth Ami, Congregation Kehillah and TKA will all hold services online this year, each synagogue’s services will look slightly different.

For Beth Ami, an older congregation, the priority is ease of use with the platform.

“I think that for a congregation like mine … it’s especially challenging for them with technology, which is part of the reason we decided to prerecord,” Lawton said. “It’s easier than people having to log on and be interactive and figure out the mute button and turning on their camera and all of that.”

Services will all be recorded ahead of time and streamed on Beth Ami’s YouTube page. The text for prayers will appear onscreen alongside services,

allowing congregants to follow along easily.

“I think the learning curve for technology for my community has been a rapid one, and they are embracing, as much as they can, this new way of davaning,” Lawton said.

At TKA, the emphasis is on using a variety of platforms and making services as interactive as possible.

“A lot of this is still in the planning stages, but we anticipate utilizing every resource, those in the box and those that are outside the box,” Schneider said. “No idea is going to be left unconsidered.”

Ultimately, members of TKA were relieved to hear that services wouldn’t be offered in person. For many, Schneider said, the early announcement removed any worry and anxiety for congregants who weren’t sure if they should attend in person in September or not.

In an email, one member told Schneider: “You have made the right call to reimagine High Holiday services. We are relieved. We don’t know if this makes the preparation easier; we hope it does. But your ability and effort to pivot so quickly for Shabbat has been amazing.”

At Congregation Kehillah, production of High Holiday services is already underway. The choir recently finished recording music for the services, and staff members are now in the process of editing it. That is the only element that will be prerecorded, Sharfman said; everything else will be livestreamed and as interactive as possible.

Congregation Kehillah is also brainstorming ways for members to enhance the High Holiday experience from their own home: encouraging them to participate on their TVs instead of their computers, if possible; to wear their tallit and kippah; and to set aside a separate space for participating in services.

Above all else, Sharfman said, she wants those who join High Holiday services this year to be engaged.

“Don’t come as a passive recipient of an experience, but as an active participant,” Sharfman said. “What that looks like may be a little bit different from past years, but I say the same thing when we’re in person. You’re not here as passive recipients of an experience, but as active contributors. And the energy you put out there matters.”

Lawton sees online High Holiday services as asking more from individual congregants this year.

“It’s a different feel, obviously,” Lawton said. “Every congregant is sort of on their own to connect with the liturgy this year, from the sanctuary of their home instead of the sanctuary of our actual sanctuary.”

Both Congregation Kehillah and Beth Ami Temple will offer services free of charge.

It’s a matter of not only welcoming and including anyone who wants to participate, Sharfman said, but of easing the burden for congregants.

“We want to make things as easy and as uncomplicated as possible, and just to let our members know that we’re there for them and supporting them,”

Sharfman said.

While nothing can replace in person connection, Lawton said, the need to engage with congregants during High Holidays remains the same.

“I miss my community very much. I miss seeing them and looking in their eyes. That face-to-face — in Hebrew it’s called panim el panim — is very important in our tradition and right now, we’re not getting to do that,” Lawton said. “So it’s a little sad, but we carry on, and the business of bringing High Holiday services and a sense of community is still necessary. So that’s what we’re doing.” JN

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