Tidewater synagogues work overtime to embrace the essence of Rosh Hashanah and touch members they can’t see

September 4, 2020

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A sanctuary overflowing with people in prayer, ties, and high heels has been the picture of High Holiday success for more than a century. Local buzz about a stirring sermon is the new year cherry on top.

Two universal truths hit home this year with COVID-19: Modern technology is just one essential piece of the holiday pandemic survival kit. And, on Rosh Hashanah, you get more participation with honey.

Some area synagogues realized that you can’t overlook the value of sharing one sweet symbol of renewal with members, when contact is restricted, or off the table completely. Not every aspect of the holiday can be experienced via Zoom—especially honey and hugs. These congregations went the distance to sweeten the holiday.

Temple Emanuel, for example, will deliver a bag of honey and honey cake prepared by the kitchen staff to its member families.

“Yes, the High Holidays will be different this year, but we intend to use every cutting-edge medium at our disposal to help make them just as meaningful!” says Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Marc Kraus.

All 700 Ohef Sholom Temple member families received High Holiday phone calls, options for borrowing prayer books, and a special brand of honey from Charlottesville, along with other treats; a mitzvah made possible by a group of dedicated volunteers. Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg will share the blessing for dipping apples into honey with her community—knowing the effort taken to create what will be an intensely powerful moment.

In the months leading up to the High Holiday season, synagogue officers, lay leaders, and rabbis and cantors, have been deep in discussion and private thought about what members need most, and how to turn spiritual longing into safe deliverables, while observing respective religious customs concerning the use of technology, etc.

Since there is no guide, no playbook to conducting the most attended, most revered services of the year during a pandemic, these dedicated individuals say they researched and met virtually with other congregational and clergy leaders around the country to determine the best path for conducting this year’s High Holiday season. Most determined the best and safest route was to embark on a virtual journey.

B’nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk and Kempsville Conservative Synagogue in Virginia Beach, however, are among the synagogues here and around the world that will deliver in-person prayer services. But, you can’t just pack a room and pray for the best in 2020. Today, clergy and staff must decide how many families can safely attend services, what rituals are cut and what remains, and for how long the services will run. For example, at B’nai Israel, the daven-only service is truncated. Safety protocol is a big issue that requires a lot of smart heads in the game, not just big hearts.

In a Sophie’s Choice sort of moment, synagogues with limited space for in-person observances were put in the position of deciding how to say ‘yes’ to one member while turning another away. How do religious leaders decide who will observe in-person when supply doesn’t meet demand? It’s a painful process, one that isn’t taught in rabbinical school. Congregation Beth El in Norfolk found a way by taking reservations for its members to have five-minute sacred ‘moments’ in front of the ark.

“Congregation Beth El is reaching out to members to participate in the upcoming High Holiday services, as well as offering family programs, book club, and cooking classes themed around the holidays,” says Deb Segaloff, president-elect. “Our members have set up a volunteer driving brigade to deliver holiday boxes and machzorim to our members’ homes before Rosh Hashannah. We have shared meaningful life cycle events from B’not mitzvah to Shiva minyanim. We find ourselves navigating new ways of connecting every day.”

The creativity to ensure congregants feel connected this High Holiday season is impressive. Several congregations, for example, are conducting in-person Tashlich services, Chabad is blowing the shofar outside, and Tidewater Chavuah is hosting a Rosh Hashanah Seder in place of Erev Rosh Hashanah services.

It appears that an empty sanctuary takes much more time and effort to prepare for than one packed with people. The amount of work that goes into this undertaking is enormous, but that’s nothing compared to the synagogues’ desire to step up and step into their congregants’ homes.

- Lisa Richmon

Letter to the Editor