Be it blasting shofars in parking lots or handing out goody bags filled with prayer and activity books and specialized mints to passing cars, the Jewish community in Greater Phoenix is getting creative in order to maintain a sense of community and continuity during High Holidays challenged by COVID-19’s restrictions.
Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman credited the “talented and creative people” at Congregation Kehillah for the idea to fill recyclable shopping bags with Machzorim and activity books, as well as honey sticks and “atone-mints” — specially made for Kehillah — to symbolize a sweet new year for its members.
Congregants pulled into Kehillah’s parking lot and popped their trunks while volunteers put the bags inside and warned them not to tarry, lest certain sweet items melt. Volunteers made enough to give to roughly 90 families as well as additional bags to mail to snowbirds still out of town.
“How we get these books in people’s hands,” synagogue administrator, Renee Joffee said, was the focus. Thus far, she said, “the idea’s been well-received.”
When May rolled around, “it was clear we wouldn’t be in person and would have to plan something special for online,” said Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman. She joked that she would wake up in the middle of the night and jot down notes filled with ideas that were difficult to decipher come morning.
Sharfman recognized that a number of congregations are doing similar things in light of COVID-19’s social distancing restrictions. There’s an impulse to be “as engaging as possible,” she said.
“We wanted to make sure we had something engaging for the children,” Sharfman said. “This year’s a very different feel, and it needs to be done differently. It’s important to put things in their hands, and they can go at their own pace.”
Her team created an activity book — a kind of treasure hunt throughout the service. The books will have children trying to answer questions like: How many times do you hear something repeated? How many expressions of gratitude are there?
“A sense of connection is what people are looking for,” Sharfman said. Giving members the familiar prayer books — that will now belong to them – she hopes they will feel closer to the service, even on Zoom.
Hearing blasts from the shofar is an important tradition during the High Holidays, but Rabbi Michael Beyo, East Valley Jewish Community Center’s CEO, suggested that only hearing the sound on Zoom might not quite cut it. So he will be standing in EVJCC’s parking lot a few times in the coming days and blowing the shofar for members as they drive by in order to offer a sense of familiarity.
“It’s one traditional thing I can offer people who won’t be able to hear it in person otherwise,” he said. “I will be able to do that.”
Initially, Beyo considered going to people’s homes with the shofar in hand, but because of social distancing concerns, the parking lot at EVJCC seemed the safest choice.
“They can stay in their car, roll down their windows, and I’ll blow the shofar for them,” he said.
Reservations are spaced 20 minutes apart.
“I’ll have the opportunity to say a few words of encouragement for repentance and self–reflection and exchange some words for people who would come,” said Beyo.
Temple Chai is also having what it calls a “Shofar Extravaganza,” in its parking lot.
“It is an opportunity for us to see the faces of our congregants — not on a screen — and for them to see us,” said Rabbi Bonnie Koppell. “Hearing the shofar is such a fundamental part of the High Holiday experience, and it will be so powerful and meaningful and exponentially so this year because our opportunities for in-person interactions are so very limited.”
Congregants are scheduling appointments to drive onto the campus Sept. 13, 19 and 20. Rabbi Mari Charnow, Cantor Ross Wolman and Koppell will be paired with a congregant experienced in blowing the shofar and located in different spots on the campus. People will drive by, roll down their windows and hear the shofar and receive prayers and blessings offered by the rabbis and cantor.
“People are very excited about it,” said Koppell. “This will offer a bit of the comfort of home — being in their spiritual home.”
In addition to the above examples, some in the community are giving a twist to standing traditions.
The late Rabbi Micah Caplan initiated a High Holiday custom at Congregation Or Tzion of bringing people to stand in front of the ark to recite a traditional prayer or one of their own. In earlier years that involved congregants standing in line, waiting their turn. With COVID-19’s restrictions, Or Tzion wanted to keep the practice, but this year people make appointments staggered in 15-minute intervals.
“A sense of connection and community is exactly what we’re trying to create,” said Frank Lange, vice president of ritual.
Denyse Lieber and her family participated and said even though the people she passed in the hallway wore masks, she could tell they were smiling. “They were so happy to see people they used to bump into in the synagogue, even for just a minute or two.”
Alison Feinberg, Or Tzion board member, was happy to see the tradition maintained, albeit in a slightly altered fashion. “I am so pleased our High Holiday Committee is offering this as an option,” she said. “Every year during Neilah services, it was Rabbi Caplan’s tradition to have the ark open and for families to have private time in front of it. It was one of my favorite moments of the High Holidays.” JN