NJ Jews will adapt high holidays to the COVID crisis with TV shows and shofar house calls – NorthJersey.com

Posted By on September 15, 2020

Morning prayer service (Shacharit) in Fair Lawn takes place at the back of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn on 09/10/20. NorthJersey.com

Most years, a high holiday crowd of 3,300 packsthe sanctuary of TempleEmanu-El in Closter to recite ancient prayers, sing holiday tunes and listen to the blasts of the shofar, the ram's horn traditionally blown during Judaism's most sacred holiday.

This year,services at the Conservative temple will have more of a Hollywood feel.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner normally spends the weeks preceding Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippurcraftingsermons and preparing menus for dozens of dinner guests. Instead, he's playing himself on the set of a virtual high-holiday extravaganza.

"It's like shooting a live television show," said Kirshner. "It meant havinga film crew around with cameras and lights and markers and directors that created a sense of excitement and even freneticism, which made it feel likewe were filming 'Keeping the Faith' meets 'Top Gun II.'"

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The high holiday period that opens Friday evening is usually a time of spiritual introspection and self-improvement for Jews. But amid coronavirus fears and social distancing restrictions, congregations across North Jersey are being forced to get creative, with high production-value virtual performances, outdoor services and shofar house calls attempting to bring ancient traditions to the faithful.

The pandemic provokes a greater urgency forprayer, local rabbis said, as well as adauntingchallenge to uplift their flocks while keeping them safe.

"We arestill goingto provide one ofthe most meaningfuland powerful high holiday services our congregationhas everexperienced," saidRabbi Meeka Simerly of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne. She'll be livestreaming from an empty sanctuary this yeara "painful" but necessary concession.

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Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, begins on the eve of Sept. 18 and is typically celebrated with synagogue services, festive meals with ritual foods, and sounding the shofar, whose piercingcry aims to inspire repentance.

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, begins at sundown on Sept. 27, and is generally observed by abstaining from food and drink, withmuch of the day spent in synagogue.

As worshipers around the world prepare to usher in the Jewish new year of 5781 amid COVID concerns, thecelebrations are being reimagined.

Houses of worship around New Jersey closed in late March, after Gov.Phil Murphy bannedlarge gatherings. Restrictions haveeased in recent weeks, and indoor prayer services have resumed in some places, albeitwith limited attendance and strict guidelinesin place.

Many conservative and reform congregations embraced onlineservices when the outbreak began. With the high holidays upon them, synagogues are upping the ante, hiring professional production companies to create sophisticated digital events with dress rehearsals, promotional videos emailed to congregants and prerecorded performances from choirs and cantors.

The goal, clergy say, is to create a spiritual feeling and a community atmosphere, rather than a sense that someone is watching a movie fromtheir sofa.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El(Photo: Temple Emanu-El)

The end resultwill bring worshipersthe familiar components ofthe high holiday service, including"thesermons and vignettes from the clergy, tunes they know from the cantor and rolesthat people in our congregation have had for years," said Temple Emanu-El's Kirshner,whose temple will also offer in-person services with limited attendance.

At Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, musician Adam Fox will lead services expected to be streamed to almost 1,000 members. He'll sing from the sanctuary, while masked, accompanied by a pianist and one other singer, but no choir. Congregants will un-mute themselves during the Zoom broadcast to recite readings and blessings.

"Beth Rishon is very musically inclined and we had to figure out how to bring musical elements to our virtual format while being socially distant," Fox said.

In Teaneck, Congregation Beth Sholom will offer a hybrid affair with severalsmall, in-person prayer services inaddition to a livestream for those who preferto stay home. Putting together an infrastructure for the two parallel systems has been a tremendous effort, said Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky. Rain could complicate things even further, he said.

Pitkowisky hopes congregants of the Conservative temple will find meaning in the holidays this year, despite all of the changes. His goal, he said, is to help people feelconnected to community and God at a a time when so many feel isolated and alone.

"We don't want to just get the holidaysdone. We want it to be an amazing religious experience."

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State regulations permit indoor religious services limited to25%of a room's capacity, but capped at 150 people regardless of the size of the room, a spokesman for the governor's office said this week. There are no numerical limits on outdoor religious services or worship under tents with open sides.

Some synagogues don't have the option ofgoingdigital: Orthodox Jews, who are prohibited from usingelectronics on the high holidays, are mainly planningsmall, socially distanced services in tents, backyards or indoors with social distancing restrictions in place.

The Jewish Center of Teaneck, an Orthodox synagogue, will significantly shorten its normalhours-long prayer service, allowing for smaller, multiple in-person gatherings.

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"Everyone will be wearing masks. There will be less singing and abbreviated services so it will be more streamlined," said Rabbi Daniel Fridman. Several piyutim, orliturgical poems, will beeliminated because they are not a required part of the service, he said. But such changes will not impact the essence of the holidays or the spiritual feeling, according to Fridman.

Some of us congregants feel bad that they haven't attended synagogue in months due to the pandemic. Fridmanreassuresthem that it's okay. "According toJewish law, health takes precedence over everything,"he said. "If anyone feels unsafe attending services, they should pray at home."

Fridman plans to makehouse calls as well, albeit outdoors,with his shofar so that everyone who wants to can hear the blowing of the ram's horn for the holiday.

Rabbi Abe Weintraub opens the Sefer Torah during the outdoor morning prayer services (Shacharit in Hebrew) at the back of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn on 09/10/20. (Photo: Mitsu Yasukawa/Northjersey.com)

In a year when it's difficult for communities to gather, innovations abound. Some temples are holding holiday sing-a-longs on Zoomand distributing giftbags. Rabbis are making hundreds of phone calls and sending emails to check in on their flock. Many have ramped up online learning and prayer programsin the lead-up to the high holidays.

Temple Emanu-El and Temple Beth Rishon will hold drive-by shofar blowingfor congregants and distribute baskets with apples and honey, traditionalRosh Hashana foods that symbolize a sweet new year. Several congregations, such as Temple Sinai of Bergen Countyin Tenafly, are holding outdoor, socially distanced Tashlich services, in which people symbolically "cast away" their sins near a body of water.

Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, an Orthodox synagogue, has invited community members to submit their spiritual reflections to a journal called 2020 Visions. And its leader, Rabbi Andrew Markowitz, is running a book club over Zoom focused on repentance.

"The most important thing to us right now as we are slowly reopening our synagogue is that everything that we do is done in a safeand healthy manner," he said.

Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives,please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


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