A few years ago, in the midst of chemotherapy treatments, I could not attend High Holy Day services at my synagogue. My family attended as usual, and I stayed home, turned on the computer, and watched the livestream. It gave me the perspective to say with confidence that streaming would never be a satisfactory replacement for in-person services. With High Holy Days 5781 going all or mostly online in most communities, here are five things I had to figure out for myself; addressing them will make a huge difference for our communities this fall.
- Distractions. In our own sanctuaries, we make an announcement or put in our handouts a reminder to silence cell phones, and the peer pressure of being in a theater-like setting is enough for most people to comply. But at home, we are asking people to be on the very screens that we want them to avoid in synagogue. More than that, unlike the online Shabbat services we’ve been doing for months now, High Holy Day services aren’t just for the most dedicated among us. Rosh HaShanah falling on a weekend will help limit work distractions, but how many people will try to stream Yom Kippur services while also working from home and, perhaps, homeschooling their children? Consider a reminder—and a how-to—not just on connecting to the livestream, but on turning off distracting notifications: news apps, emails, text messages, and more, that will drag them away from the service mentally if not physically.
- Physical machzor. Visual T’filah is beautiful; it has been a lifesaver, and I wish it had been part of the livestream in the year I was home. I was lucky to have my own machzor on the shelf; I’m not sure I would have continued streaming without it. But the High Holy Days are about personal reflection; Mishkan HaNefesh allows eyes to wander and enhances individual prayer in the midst of community prayer. During a choral piece, how many of our congregants watch the cantor or choir the whole time, and how many are reading something else on the page? Our machzor encourages reflection and prayer, and especially in a year that is already strange, anything we can do to enrich that is important. If our congregants don’t already own a machzor, we should be thinking about how to get a copy into their hands.
- Busy hands. I’m a doodler and a fidgeter. In the sanctuary, the machzor gives me something to hold onto. But when streaming services, the machzor sits on a table in front of me, so my hands are empty. I do not participate as fully as I do when I’m in the sanctuary. People will be tempted to pick up their phones to play a game, or to read a nearby magazine, or to fold laundry. What could we encourage people to do instead? I did hand lettering during the High Holy Days I was streaming, creating artwork out of words from the machzor. I copied out, by hand, readings or lines I found especially meaningful. I wrote prayers. What can we give to our congregants to keep them in the mental space of the service, when they are surrounded by a million other things they could be doing?
- Kids and others. In the year I stayed home, during the daytime services, my husband took our children to the synagogue. For the evening services, I was home with the kids while he went to synagogue. Even though the kids (then three and almost one) were in bed when the services began, I missed a lot until they (eventually) fell asleep. I could not have done it during the day when they were up. How can we support families with young children at home, without the ubiquitous babysitting or children’s programming? While some congregations might simultaneously stream children’s programming, many won’t be able to. What resources can we provide in order to entertain, educate, and spiritually nourish children so that their parents can focus and pray? What resources can we provide to parents to empower them to get their kids connected and engaged?
- Connection. The High Holy Days are about connecting with God, but they’re also about connecting with other people and with clergy. I missed this part the most, in my streaming year, and we’re all feeling it now. Maybe we want to encourage congregants to (virtually) chat with each other during services. Maybe we can have someone periodically post pre-written discussion questions—or questions about the sermon—during the service. Maybe we can add High Holy Day programming that isn’t services, like small-group Tashlich (one of few things I attended in-person that year), or physically distant picnics, or apple picking. Maybe we’re making more phone calls than usual, and having board members call the congregation not just to say “shanah tovah,” but to really work on connecting, encourage religious school classes and other auxiliary groups to hold themed hangouts, or having breakout group receptions or discussions during or after the service.
It’s really hard to feel connected at a time when we’re used to being with our biggest crowds, and instead, we’re alone in a room. I won’t pretend it was fun when I did it a few years ago, but working together and planning ahead, the experience could be a new way to engage, reflect, and pray together.
Rabbi Jessica Barolsky lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her family, where she is a member of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. She is grateful that CEEBJ has been livestreaming services for many years.