By Liam Stack
The first High Holy Days of the coronavirus era will be celebrated this weekend, as rabbis try to deliver an online version of Judaism’s most sacred celebrations.
Rosh Hashana, it is written, begins on Friday evening, the first day of the holy month of Tishrei. But at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, like many other congregations, preparations for this year’s High Holy Days services began far earlier, and were vastly different.
With the coronavirus pushing services online, the synagogue had to hire a video and sound crew, prerecord some parts of the service and arrange for multiple clergy members to lead the worship live, each beaming in from a different location, like news reporters covering a hurricane.
“I feel like I have learned how to be a 1950s live television producer,” said Serge Lippe, the senior rabbi of the synagogue, a reform congregation. “I have been running a show and producing cuts and all kinds of things I have never had to think about.”
The first Jewish High Holy Days of the coronavirus era will be celebrated this weekend, and for synagogues across New York the learning curve has been steep.
Many synagogues have livestreamed weekly services during the pandemic, but turning the holidays — which include Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year — into online celebrations is more complicated than just pointing a camera at the rabbi and logging on to Zoom.
The coronavirus has profoundly disrupted religious life by turning worship services into potentially deadly super-spreader events. And it has deeply affected the Jewish community in New York, arriving on the eve of another holiday, Purim, and exacting a heavy toll among Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn and elsewhere.
For many Jewish communities, the threat of the virus has turned Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which begins on the night of Sept. 27, into online-only events. But that excludes the Orthodox, who are taught to eschew technology on the Sabbath and who plan in-person celebrations of the High Holy Days.
For them, the holidays will be celebrated in synagogues, parking lots and outdoor tents with as many pandemic precautions as possible, said Motti Seligson, a spokesman for the Chabad movement, which is one of the largest Jewish organizations in the world.
Services in the New York area will limit the number of people in attendance, mandate social distancing and face masks and — in at least one synagogue on Long Island — erect a sheet of plexiglass to separate the rabbi and worshipers, he said.
But not every Orthodox group is being as careful. Last weekend, the Satmar Hasidic movement posted pictures from an official Twitter account that showed thousands of worshipers standing shoulder to shoulder inside a synagogue in Orange County.
The images raised concern about the spread of the virus among Hasidic Jews, whose community was hard hit by the pandemic in the spring amid numerous examples at funerals and schools where social distancing protocols were not observed.
In Brooklyn, Rabbi Lippe said, the “synergies” of a normal celebration, which might normally draw 1,000 people to his congregation, may be absent this year, but the spiritual heart of the holiday will remain.
“We know there will be bloops and blunders along the way, but the High Holy Days are not supposed to be a polished Hollywood production,” he said. “They are a very human effort that recognizes our imperfections, and many of those imperfections will be on display as we make this effort to worship together remotely.”
The Brooklyn Heights Synagogue is far from alone.
Central Synagogue in Manhattan began planning its holiday services in the spring, said its senior rabbi, Angela Buchdahl. Instead of dwelling on all the things they could not do, she said, they decided to focus on the creative opportunities a virtual celebration could provide.
That includes a dance performance planned for Yom Kippur and a High Holy Days box sent to worshipers that was filled with items to help them create a sanctuary at home, including a miniature ark designed by an Israeli artist.
Their online service will also include the prerecorded blowing of a shofar, or ram’s horn trumpet, that was used in 1944 by Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz to welcome the new year. The horn is currently on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage near Battery Park in Manhattan.
“For us to be able to use this symbol of resilience and strength, especially in a year like this, feels particularly powerful,” she said.