Categories
High Holy Days

Un’taneh Tokef for 5781

Let these words of our prayers ascend
As we stand embodied, virtual, in our homes, on this screen, alone, together.

Knowing You are God, not knowing what that means…
We proclaim the sacred power of this day,
The sacred power of the shofar’s blast,
The power of the internet connecting us 
While the power of an infinitesimally small virus reshapes the meaning of what human power can and cannot do…
It is awesome and full of dread. 

Our prayers proclaim: You are Judge. You inscribe and seal.
This year we say: We are judged by our own choices, fates sealed by our actions. 
Will we remember all that we have forgotten? 
Will we remember civility and respect, conversation and kindness?
Will we remember the dignity of personal responsibility, the privileges and obligations of belonging to a community?
Can we awaken in time to our own soul truth: that every moment bears the promise, the opportunity of t ‘shuvah, of choice, of change, of return?
What will fill our Book of Memories in this year to come, when so much is still possible?

A Great Shofar will cry–t’kiah!
A still small voice will be heard.
But will we hear it? Will angels tremble? Will we, with our better angels, tremble? Will we awaken to wisdom and compassion? Or will we remain like slumbering sheep? 

On Rosh HaShanah it is written; on the Fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many will pass away from this world; how many will be born into it.
How many of us will rise with compassion; how many of us will drift into numbness.
How many will be stricken with a novel virus; how many will be thrust into novel life paths.
Who will reach across barriers with love, and who will have barriers hurled upon them?
Who will recognize the ways life has given them advantages, and who will help others gain advantage?
Who will fall in love, and who will stumble in hate?
Who will find new perspectives, and who will see the world through a prism of banality?
Which book will you write yourself into this new year?
We have this as our guide: Tzedakah is the route of connection to others. T’filah is the route of connection to Source. And Tshuvah, is connection to the root of the soul[1]. These are the ways we choose life. These are the ways we choose love. These are the ways we choose You.

Rabbi Annie Belford has served Houston’s Temple Sinai since 2009 as Houston’s first full-time female solo pulpit rabbi. She is the mother of three amazing souls, loves visiting our National Parks, and is a proud member of the CCAR Committee for Worship and Practice. 

Rabbi Debra Kassoff has made her rabbinic career primarily in Mississippi, first at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life and since 2010 with Hebrew Union Congregation, which she originally served as student rabbi, in a previous century. She is also the new Director of Member Engagement for Mississippi Public Broadcasting Foundation. She lives in Jackson with her family.


[1] Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, Orot HaTeshuvah

Categories
High Holy Days

God Knows Us by Name

God numbers the stars; God calls them each by name. (Psalm 147:4)

Imagine that. The vast numbers of stars, the infinite number of them, not just in our night sky, in our Milky Way, but beyond—star after star after star. They are not mere dots in a dark sky to God. They are individual lights, each special in the eyes of the Holy One. How much more, then, are we, created in God’s own image, b’tzelem Elohim, בצלם אלוהים, important to God as who we are. Each person, with our quirks and talents, our strengths and our sins, each of us, unique before God, named and beloved.

My friend Gino grew up on a small farm. She tells me that when you know sheep from the time of birth, you can tell them apart. It’s like looking at a group of dogs of the same breed, she explained; if your dog is among them, or if they are all your dogs, you would see their individuality, to call them by name. 

I asked her about this because I’ve been thinking about the Un’taneh Tokef, the prayer we read during the High Holy Days. It is often thought of as ominous: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” Part of the reason it might frighten us is its pure honesty: “Who will pass on and how many will be created; who will live and who will die?” The reality is that every year, babies will be born and some of us, whether gathered in shul saying these words or in the larger world, will die. Everyone who is born will someday die. And this prayer makes us face that awe-full truth.

The Un’taneh Tokef describes the underlying metaphor of the Days of Awe: the Book of Life. “May you be written for a good and sweet year,” Jews wish one another at the New Year. What is this Book?  God remembers everything, the Un’taneh Tokef proclaims, even that which has been forgotten by humans, by those of us whose memories God is keeping for us. God will open our book of memories and read. There is no escaping our past; there is a Book of Life for each of us, and it bears the signature of every human being.    

“All who enter the world will pass before You like sheep. As a shepherd searches for his flock, and has his sheep pass under his staff, so too will You record and recount and review all living beings as You have them pass by. And You will decide the end of all creatures, and write down their sentence.”

Scary stuff, indeed.

But the image of God as shepherd suggests otherwise. God as judge, as prosecutor, suggests a Divine urge to judge us. God as shepherd, however, is a Holy One who wishes to care for us, each of us in our foolishness and wayward behavior. What is the point of the shepherd’s staff? To make sure that no lamb goes astray, gets lost in the field or wilderness. God’s staff is there to ensure that each of us is included. 

God as “author and sealer, recorder and recounter” might also be less judgmental than traditionally understood. Perhaps our Book of Life might be like a journal, kept for a class. Each year, God takes each of us aside, and reviews our progress. “How’s it going?,” God asks us. “No, really. I know you’ve been working on being more honest in your relationships. Any trouble there?,” God might say. Or, “How is your energy being split between work and family? I know they are both important to you.”

This is a time to look honestly at ourselves: our goals, our failings, our hopes, our regrets. This is God as a Teacher, a Coach, a Parent, putting an arm around us and saying, “Let’s look at your life together. How might it be better? I, God, the Holy One of the world, am here to help.” “For you want them to turn from their path and live.”

If God knows the stars by name, God certainly knows me. Not just my name, but me. The Divine knows the divinity in me, and the not-so-divine. At the turning of the year, God warns us not just that some will die, but that most will live—and how? Can we accept God’s guidance to return to ourselves through repentance, turn to God through prayer, and reach out to others through righteous action. These will not prevent us from dying, but will show us how to live, how to attain a good name, a name that God will be honored to pronounce. 


Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She may be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com.

Categories
High Holy Days News

Rabbi Hara Person’s High Holy Day Message to CCAR Members

As CCAR members prepare to celebrate the High Holy Days and lead services safely distanced but spiritually connected to their communities during the coronavirus pandemic, Rabbi Hara Person shares her gratitude for their deep commitment to strengthening the Reform community.


As these really strange High Holy Days approach, I keep thinking about that Baal Shem Tov story about going into the forest, finding just the right place, and the right prayer, and lighting the fire, and saving the people from danger. And how every subsequent generation loses a little bit of original ritual but it’s still enough.

Together, we are writing the next chapter of that story, in which, many, many years later, our people once again face incredible danger.

In this new story, it wasn’t clear what to do at first. The elders recalled bits and pieces of old stories, but there were many conflicting versions and no concrete direction. The rabbi didn’t know what to do and so she had to figure it out as best she could. There was no longer a forest—it had long ago been turned into a suburban development and a sprawling mall. As for the special prayers, those hadn’t been part of the rabbinic school curriculum when she was a student. And she couldn’t light a fire, as no one wanted to risk starting another wildfire. So the rabbi wove together the bits of the different stories she had heard, and talked to her wise colleagues who offered ideas and suggestions, and brought together the community.

Because of the great danger, they were spread out in many different places, each person participating in the service remotely through a computer. She told them the story of the past as best she could, and offered up prayers. The community participated with open hearts, and their fervent hopes for a better future reached right from their souls up to the heavens. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t way things had been done in the past. But it was enough.

What we’re doing this year, no matter how different it is from the past, is enough. All the planning you’re doing, all the incredibly hard work you’re doing to make these holidays happen, to keep your community connected, and to take care of them, is enough. Everything you’re doing to take care of yourself, and to take care of those you love, is enough. 

These High Holy Days are going to be different than ever before. They definitely won’t look like the Holy Days of yesterday. But that’s okay. We’re adapting to the present. Despite the strangeness of this experience, you’re still opening up your heart and creating space for others to open theirs. You’re enabling people to gather in creative and virtual ways. You’re helping them speak the yearnings of their souls. Yes, it will be different, but because of your careful work, it will still feel familiar and comforting.

It’s a lot. It’s really a lot. If you’re feeling exhausted and wrung out from all of this, you’re not alone.

Thank you for facing this moment with courage, creativity, and hope.

Thank you for pouring the best of yourself into making these upcoming Holy Days the best they can be under the circumstances.

Thank you for what you are doing to strengthen our community and our people at this difficult time, in all the many ways you are doing so.

Thank you for caring for our college students, our elderly, our sick, our youngest, our newest, our noisiest, our quietest, our bravest, and our most afraid.

Thank you to those just starting your rabbinic careers in a way that no one could have predicted, thank you to those for whom this will be the last time leading High Holy Day services, and thank you for those in retirement for being role models, mentors, and cheerleaders as we navigate unfamiliar terrain. 

Thank you for being part of our rabbinic community, for supporting each other throughout this time, for sharing your ideas and your concerns, your resources and your love.

And thank you for doing all this while balancing your own families and loved ones, perhaps schooling and playing with your children, caring for your parents and other family members, maybe dealing with the loneliness and isolation of distancing, trying to take care of your own health and wellbeing, dealing with fears and anxiety about your financial security and livelihood, perhaps mourning those you’ve lost, the tremendous turmoil of postponed or radically different life cycle events, no summer camp, cancelled plans, and that doesn’t even cover it.

I’m going to end, therefore, with a plea—once the holidays are behind us, please make time to recover. Take time to replenish your souls and nurture yourself. Please take care not only of those you serve and those you love, but also of yourself.

The forest, the fire, the prayers are all being reinvented this year, and how lucky we are to have your leadership in doing so in such a myriad of ways. And it is indeed enough.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Executive of the CCAR.

Categories
High Holy Days Social Justice

Hearing the Shofar As a Wake-Up Call is a Sign of Our Privilege

This Elul, a group of Maine rabbis have been posting videos of shofar soundings from across the state. Many of us are talking about the shofar as a wake-up call. An alarm bell. A reminder that the holidays are coming.

The implication, of course, to waking up at the sound of the shofar is that we need a reminder. A reminder of what is broken in our world. A reminder of how we ourselves have fallen short. A reminder that we had better get to work, because Rosh HaShanah is coming. The need for a reminder implies that we live through the rest of the year with the privilege to forget the pain and suffering that exists in the world. The ways that we as a people, as a society, have gone astray. The need to hear the shofar means that we have been able to close our eyes.

The killing of George Floyd, and more recently the shooting of Jacob Blake, are a shofar sound calling us to attention. But, the shofar has been wailing continuously for years, for decades, for centuries, we just have not heard it. As Jacob Blake’s sister, Letetra Widman said, “So many people have reached out to me saying they’re sorry that this has been happening to my family. Well don’t be sorry because this has been happening to my family for a long time, longer than I can account for. It happened to Emmett Till, Emmett Till is my family. It happened to Philando, Mike Brown, Sandra.”

As the powerful lynching memorial in Montgomery, with its hanging steel rectangles reminiscent of coffins reminds us, we don’t know the names of all those who were murdered. The slaves who were bought and sold and beaten to death were known by name to their families and friends, but their names are unknown to us today. We have the luxury of needing the shofar to wake us up.

When the murder of George Floyd ripped through our national consciousness like the blast of a shofar, I, like so many concerned white people, went to a Black Lives Matter protest. I wore my social justice tallit, the one made by members of my congregation with colorful quotes about equality and justice. My family and I listened to speakers and marched and held up our signs. And then, like so many others across the country, we lay on the ground in silence for eight minutes and forty six seconds. The time it took George Floyd to suffocate to death. As I lay there on the pavement, next to my seven-year-old son, I was powerfully reminded of the Grand Aleinu on Yom Kippur. During that holy time of the year I bow on the ground, face down, before the Holy One blessed be God, who spread out the heavens and established the Earth. It is a voluntary act of humility. A reminder that there is something bigger than myself in this world. I need that reminder, because my heart doesn’t catch in my throat every time I see a police officer, because I don’t worry about my safety when I walk through the trails in my neighborhood, because I don’t have to remind my children of how to act respectfully before they leave the house each day.  Choosing to be reminded, choosing to lie face down, comes from privilege and is born out of the willful ignorance of the day to day lives of others.

Shofarot: A Prayer for Righteous Anger, from Mishkan HaNefesh

Misery for breakfast;
morning coffee with the news of distant deaths –
because someone’s always suffering,
and there’s bound to be a crisis raging somewhere,
or a quieter catastrophe
barely at the threshold of our notice.
We’re accustomed to the feeling
of something going wrong.
Like static in the background,
tuned out so we can get on with our day.
And it’s just the same as yesterday
and nothing can be done;
so there’s not much point
in getting too upset.

But if something were to shock us
like a baby’s piercing wail or a fire bell in the night,
like a punch in the stomach
or a puncture in the eardrum,
like a savage call to conscience
or a frantic cry for help –
would we scream like a shofar
and get mad enough to act?
“When a ram’s horn is sounded in a city do the people not take alarm?”

So let us get mad.
Let us scream.
Let us be punched in the stomach.
Let us end, for once, without a nechemta.



After ordination, Rabbi Asch worked as a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation. She currently serves as the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Augusta, Maine and Assistant Director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life. Rabbi Asch serves as Vice President for Leadership on the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
High Holy Days

Seeking Anew

I never thought this would happen again.

Five years ago, after my congregation received the newly published Mishkan HaNefesh, I made it my mission to carefully evaluate every page to determine what prayers, songs, and meditations would speak to the souls of my congregants. I relished evaluating the exquisite reflections and poems and marveled at the stirring interpretations and commentaries.

This appraisal process was mostly exhilarating thought I admit at times it also was exhausting. Such a bounty in the machzor required discernment in selecting elements for each service that would be elevating and inspiring. 

Once I finally determined the scope of every Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur service, I unexpectedly felt sad. I thought I would never again have the opportunity to begin the High Holy Days with such an open mind and spirit.

Such has been the case for the Yamim Noraim for the past four years. Sure, I tinkered with the order of prayers; pruning some readings and changing some melodies, but the scope of each service was largely unchanged.

Not this year. Not with the pandemic and the impossibility of gathering in our sanctuary. Not with livestreaming and the necessity of reimagining every aspect of the High Holy Days 

The themes for the Days of Awe are timeless: celebration, self-examination, repentance, forgiveness, transformation, and renewal. But we are living in a time of pervasive anxiety and uncertainty about our present and future.

So, just like in 2015, I am compelled to start fresh. I am putting aside my well-used copies of Mishkan HaNefesh and looking only at an unmarked machzor; searching again for the prayers, poems, and reflections that will embrace and uplift my congregation.

Despite the pandemic, and in spite of the effort it takes to reimagine our High Holy Day services, I am thankful for this opportunity. For in beginning anew, I become a seeker once again. I have trust that the rich expressions of spiritual yearning in Mishkan HaNefesh will guide the hearts of my congregants. 

I am strengthened by Larry Hoffman’s exhortation in a June webinar for our rabbinic chevrah to have faith in ourselves; to have confidence in our ability to seize this moment and create meaning for those we serve. To which I say: Amen!  Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik!    


5781 will be Avi Schulman’s fortieth year leading High Holy Day services.  He is the rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont, California.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday

Open the Gates: A Reflection during Elul 5781

The month of Elul, leading up to Rosh HaShanah, is a time of increased soul-searching and God-searching. Traditionally, it is also a time when we draw closer to those we love, those we have hurt, and those we want to celebrate the New Year with. As this year, 2020, brings with it distance instead of closeness, and yearning instead of fulfillment, we tap into prayer to connect with our loved ones, ourselvesand God. Here, Rabbi Nicole Roberts shares a poem about preparing spiritually for the High Holy Days during this unprecedented time.

אדון הרחמים
בשנה הבאה
פתח לנו שער בעת נעילת שער
שערי חיבוקים ושערי פנים מלאים
שערי ביתינו ושערי חברינו
שערי סבא וסבתא ושערי משפחה רחוקה
פתח לנו שער כי אנחנו
רוצים לראות את פניך גם בתפילה
וגם בחיוך של אדם בלי מסכה

Adon haRachamim—dear God of mercy
In the coming year,
P’tach lanu sha’ar, b’et n’ilat sha’ar—
Open the gates for us, open them wide:
The gates to hugs and unmasked faces,
The gates to our homes and tea with a friend,
The gates to visits with grandparents,
And our family overseas.
Open the gates for us, open them wide,
That we may once again see Your face, not only in prayer,
But in the full-faced smiles of those we hold dear.



Rabbi Nicole Roberts serves North Shore Temple Emanuel in New South Wales, Australia.

Categories
High Holy Days

In the Middle of the Night: A High Holy Day Clergy COVID-19 Confession

Can I be honest? In these past months, I have lost more sleep, wrestled with more anxiety, and endured new levels of second-guessing myself, all because the intersection of High Holy Days and the coronavirus pandemic has upended finely honed planning and practices. Where once many of my fellow rabbis and I felt pressure over sermon writing, now, like so many colleagues around the world, we are stressing out over megabytes needed and minutes to cut, and platforms to stream on, and prayers to preserve. And then one late night, this confession came forth. Perhaps it speaks of your truth too:

In the Middle of the Night:
A High Holy Day Clergy COVID-19 Confession

In the middle of the night 
I am feeling the fright
About how to do this right—
My High Holy Days COVID-19 rewrite

Can I be an inspiration?
Will I shine a comforting light?
Will the internet hold up
Providing sufficient megabytes?

Are my kavannot kosher?
Are my stories too trite?
Should we prerecord or livestream
At the temple or offsite

What passions can I convey
From my living room as I sit tight?
What comfort can I bring
Streaming from a distance satellite?

Will I uplift enough souls
To make my community unite?
Will my sermons make them think
Or will they just cause a dogfight?

Can my services really stem
The feared membership flight?
Will my appeal really raise Tzedakah
From each philanthropic socialite?

Did we think it all through
Was our preparation airtight?
Did I fail to strategically plan
Without sufficient foresight?

Will I fall to the virus
The thermometer’s rising Fahrenheit?
Or from something unexpectedly random
Like a West Nile virus mosquito bite?

Have I already ruined Yom Kippur
Like a wayward satellite? 
Will I watch it come crashing down 
Like a fiery meteorite?

Will I later kick myself
With 2020’s hindsight
After I quickly crash and burn-
Oy, I’m getting stage fright

Yes, I’m trying for homeostasis 
To be patient and polite
But my heart’s being attacked
By anxiety’s lymphocyte

So as I ride the rollercoaster
Like a frightened suburbanite
I’m trying to discern the future 
Like a soon-to-be extinct Canaanite

Worrying, when we gather together 
For Rosh Hashanah’s first candlelight
Will my rabbinate already be over
Before I step into the limelight

Like all my clergy friends
I’m trying to breath through the fright
Though the pressure’s overwhelming
For us clerical leading lights

I know our people have the desire 
And a massive spiritual appetite 
So I wonder what else can I bring
During this moment of irreligious blight

What else can I offer
That will make my community delight?
Oy, I’d better calm down
So I don’t seem so uptight

And I’d better get some sleep
Hours after midnight
So I can get up and get working
At the first morning’s light

Just one more thought…
What if… 

My sermons are ready
And the chanting seems right
And the Torah’s all rolled 
And my machzor’s in sight
Will it all be for naught
Even if I get it all right
Because I simply forgot to send
The congregational Zoom invite?

Anxiety, I hate you
But at least you’re my constant friend
I’ll see you every night
Until these High Holy Days end.


Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California.

Categories
High Holy Days Poetry

Hin’ni: Here I Am, The Confession of a Broken Heart

I am here.
I am here.
I stand before the open Ark and
the eternal scrolls of our people
dressed in white light.
I stand ready to enter into the Holy Days,
to offer prayers that urge me
to live better, kinder,
ever present to the pain of others,
to become a compassionate vessel, trustworthy
holding hope in the midst of despair.

Hin’ni
I am here, I am here.
I stand on the edge between earth and heaven,
between what I know and what I can never understand,
between life and life everlasting.
Mortality hovers, a rippling presence,
always there, lingering, waiting, holding.
I am here.

Hin’ni
I am here
I stand resilient, determined,
though I have been taken down,
forced to live a different way.
The rhythm of life has been altered.
Time unfolds and morphs, expands and stands still.
I have been called to be present, to pay attention.
What have I learned?
What have I done with the time I have been given,
glorious time of never-ending possibility?
Have I squandered the beauty, the radiance of life,
an offering to my inner being?

Who am I?
Where have I gone astray?
Am I worthy to pray with my people?
May I be worthy to pray with my people.

Hear my plea,
grant me the faith, courage and wisdom
to enter into cheshbon hanefesh:
the fragility and humility of self-examination.

Hin’ni,
I am here, I am here.
May this fractured heart, softened
and hold love and compassion,
in a way it never has before.

Hin’ni, I am here.


Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation BJBE in the Chicago area and is renown for her creative liturgy. Her work explores the need for meaning and purpose in our busy lives, creating an intentional life, spiritual awakening, forgiveness, as well as inspirational leadership and creating the synagogue for the twenty-first century. Her latest work includes Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry and Mindfulness Practice, available for purchase through the CCAR Press.

Categories
Ethics

The Mitzvah of Choosing Life during the Coronavirus Pandemic

In the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 22, we are taught:

“When you build a new house you shall make a parapet (a guardrail) for your roof, so that you do not bring blood guilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.”

In traditional Middle Eastern architecture, homes are often single story and built with flat roofs. Those roofs are often play areas for children or places to relax at night. But, they can be dangerous were someone to wander off near the edge and fall. The Torah states that it is the responsibility of the homeowner to place a fence, a guardrail, or parapet surrounding the roof in order to prevent unintentional harm to others.

Most of us understand that it is our responsibility not to place others at risk of bodily harm or especially in mortal danger. We don’t drink and drive or buy faulty baby equipment or give dangerous toys to children.

Most of the time, we are able to avoid endangering others. But this pandemic has challenged many of our assumptions. We should all be very aware that personal choices we make might have very negative consequences for those around us, both those close to us, as well as total strangers. It is challenging to think of ourselves as sources of danger in the outside world. But it’s true.

It is up to each of us to wear face masks, insist on social distancing, and be meticulous in pursuing personal hygiene. We are constructing metaphorical parapets surrounding ourselves. This is not easy. We are social beings, and we thrive on human contact, but we must sacrifice for the well-being of all.

My synagogue, Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois, made the difficult decision not to meet in person for prayer for the upcoming High Holy Days. We are sad knowing we will not be able to greet each other warmly, see our friends and family, pray together, and sing as one congregation. But we simply could not risk the health and safety of any one of us. Many congregants have written in support of that decision.

Of all the rules of Jewish law, one commandment takes precedence over all the others. To save a life overrules all other requirements. It is a command—a mitzvah—to protect human life. It is also true that Judaism never allowed faith to deny the truth of science. In Jewish thought, there is no conflict between the Biblical narrative and the discoveries of Darwin, Einstein, and others. Indeed the greatest of all Jewish theologians and legal authorities, Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides, was himself a physician.

There are those who are choosing to deny what medicine and science tell us about Covid-19. There are those who would make a partisan political issue of wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing. There are those who might call coronavirus harmless.

In contrast, we must take this pandemic very seriously. It is up to each of us to insure our own well-being and the health of our family and loved ones, but we are also responsible for our neighbors, community, and larger society.

Elsewhere in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 30, we read:

“I place before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life! So that you and your offspring shall long live and endure upon the soil that the Eternal your God swore unto your ancestors”

We must choose life.
Be safe.
Be healthy.



Rabbi Samuel Gordon serves Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois.

Categories
High Holy Days Holiday Machzor Technology

Beyond the Service: Five (More) Things to Consider for Online High Holy Days

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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?

  5. 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.