This year, the High Holidays will look different due to COVID-19, but for five new rabbis in the community, the upending of longstanding traditions offers an unusual opportunity to introduce themselves to congregants in a new way.
“It’s my first High Holidays with this community, and it’s really been a blessing to do it in such a different way, because you get to know people’s characters when things are different,” said Rabbi Zari Sussman, who joined Congregation Or Tzion as the director of lifelong learning and engagement in May. “And the character of the congregation has just been wonderful.”
Or Tzion experienced immense change and loss this year. As the High Holidays approach, the congregation is still grieving the death of Rabbi Micah Caplan, and preparing to welcome Rabbi David Klatzker as its transitional rabbi.
The High Holidays will be a busy time for Klatzker. “I’m moving next week, so I’ll be unpacking at the same time that I’m preparing for Rosh Hashanah,” he said. “It certainly gives me a way to introduce myself to the congregation at services, but we’re thinking of many other ways for how I can get to meet people.”
The synagogue will be hosting virtual meetups for small groups of congregants to get to know the new transitional rabbi, as well as launching a listening campaign to find out what members need in the wake of Caplan’s death.
Grief will be at the forefront of Klatzker’s High Holidays message for the congregation.
“Basically I’m focusing on how to grieve well, how to grieve in a healthy fashion,” Klatzker said. “This is part of our cheshbon nefesh, part of our self-accounting. We’re all grieving, and we’re looking at our lives and we’re asking ourselves: How do we go on? How do we go on without Rabbi Caplan? How do I go on without my wife? What are the things specifically that I miss, that people miss about Rabbi Caplan?”
In some ways, Sussman said, the pandemic’s disruption relieved some of the pressure of trying to recreate the services and experiences that the community expects.
“Especially for our community, we’re not going to be seeing our beloved rabbi — this is the first year without him, and so it’s good in some ways that it’s very different,” Sussman said. “I think the process of planning has brought us closer together and forced us to work together in a way that maybe we wouldn’t have had to. So there’s been blessings.”
Sussman, who will be leading all youth activities at Or Tzion during the High Holidays, is focused on making the experience as interactive as possible on virtual platforms, with a family seder on Zoom, a teen takeover of the mincha service and quizzes and games to keep kids involved in the holidays.
As a new rabbi in the community, she said, there’s always a desire to live up to that community’s expectations and traditions.
In a world upended by a pandemic, “it’s been very different,” Sussman said. “The biggest fear somebody has when they start a new community is that you’re not going to do it the same as they’re used to. And so now it takes a little bit of the pressure off, because it’s not the same.”
Temple Solel was also joined by a new rabbi this year: Rabbi Debbie Stiel became associate rabbi in July, and is approaching the High Holidays from the perspective of being part of a new community and learning to adapt on the go.
“Like every congregation, we’re trying to pivot from the normal way of doing things, but that’s a little more challenging when you haven’t been here to experience the normal,” Stiel said.
The weeks leading up to the High Holidays “are always busy with sermon writing and thinking about what aspects of the holiday I want to lift up, but I think this year there are all these additional things to be thinking about.”
The technical aspects of this year’s services are one important difference from past years. With entirely virtual services at Temple Solel, the clergy team will be using PowerPoint slides to help congregants follow along with the service. And the synagogue’s tradition of reading the names of babies born in the past year has expanded, allowing members to submit baby pictures that will be shared virtually with the rest of the congregation.
All in all, while services will be different, part of the preparations this year are about finding ways to be in community.
“I love this human attribute and certainly this Jewish attribute of trying to make the most and the best of what we have,” Stiel said.
For Rabbi Mendy Rimler, the High Holidays provide an opportunity to continue to reach out to the community at the Chabad Jewish Center of South Phoenix, which he and his wife Sarah opened in December 2019. While the pandemic has limited in-person gatherings in the months since the center opened, Rimler said that his family is continuing to build a sense of community.
“One by one, we’re meeting people,” Rimler said. “Slowly but surely we’re building and as coronavirus hopefully recedes, we can unleash with more events in person again.”
His goal for the High Holidays is to find safe and meaningful ways for people to celebrate. The Chabad House will offer small, socially distant in-person services, as well as outdoor shofar blowing. For those who can’t attend in person, the Rimlers are offering care packages with honey cake, challah and prayer books, “so that they still feel connected even if they need to be home and they’re not physically praying in a formal synagogue setting,” Rimler said.
The call of the shofar, in particular, offers an important message this year, he said: humility.
“I think one of the most powerful messages of the High Holidays is that the call of the shofar symbolizes a cry, and a cry is humility … When a child cries out, you’re crying for help, you’re crying for something else, for something more,” Rimler said. “Now’s the time, more than ever with COVID-19, for us to feel that space of humility, that we’re really all in this together.”
Rabbi Suzy Stone, the new campus rabbi at Hillel at Arizona State University, is also focusing on the shofar and its ability to offer a unique moment of reflection this year.
“For me, something that’s really become clear with the pandemic is thinking about, what’s the essence of all the holidays?” Stone said. “The only commandment we really have on Rosh Hashanah is the shofar. So I’m really excited to strip away all of these other pieces, all of the other elements of singing and praying and just do a shofar service — have it be outdoors, short, but with the focus being: What does it mean to listen?”
Shofar blowing, along with tashlich and Havdalah, will be held outside with social distancing, and Hillel will join Temple Emanuel of Tempe for online services co-led by Stone and Rabbi Dean Shapiro.
While Stone also led High Holiday services at Hillel last year, when she was working as assistant director, she said that the transition to campus rabbi has given her more room to plan for the full High Holiday season.
“It’s different in the sense that I think I’m holding more of my mental energy. It is definitely, from A to Z, thinking about the Shabbat leading up to it and after it and in between,” Stone said. “I think because I’m doing less of the administrative side of things this year, it’s allowing me to be more creative in the High Holiday season, to be able to really think through all the way up to Sukkot.”
Stone is focused on sharing two themes with students this year: ‘letting in the light,’ and resilience and courage, especially after the recent posting of anti-Semitic flyers at the Tempe campus.
“The world is filled with much more divisiveness than there ever has been,” Stone said. “So one thing that I’m thinking a lot about is, how do we cultivate courage? What is the spiritual practice by which we can heal?”
As for the theme of light, many Reform congregations read the story of creation on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and this year, Stone wants her students to take the words “let there be light” to heart.
“We have been inundated with the opposite of light, with fear, with darkness, with anxiety,” Stone said. “My hope, my goal for this coming year is that even if we can’t be the harbingers of light, that we let light be around us, that we don’t get in its way, that we open our doors to it, that we open our hearts to it.” JN