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Praying on the Jewish High Holidays during Covid

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The Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are nearing, and Jews across North America and in the Five Towns who want to pray together will either attend synagogues, albeit in a unique environment, or use technology to connect spiritually.

Because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic, returning to a synagogue now requires extra precautions, so many shuls will use virtual platforms to celebrate the holidays, as they have for other services.

The Rabbinical Council of America and the New York-based Orthodox Union, which represents more than 400 congregations in the U.S. and Canada, published guidelines in a four-page document sent to union members that focuses on 16 points ranging from seating plans to children’s programming.

“The main message is respect, respect for human life, which is a core principal of Judaism,” said Rabbi Adir Posy, the Orthodox Union’s director of synagogue services. “We believe in all the locally applied health guidelines.”

Noting that the OU called for the shutdown of synagogues when the pandemic first hit, Posy said that the organization allowed for worshiping under “very strict guidelines” as phased reopenings took place.

Holding services and praying together in the Jewish religion has two parts that are special, he said. “The first part, the almost technical part, that every religion has is . . . that for prayer to work, it requires people praying with others; prayers are more successful when you do it as a community,” Posy said. “The second part is what we are doing as a community socially connects us with a joint communal social message.”

Synagogues on Long Island were permitted to reopen at 25 percent capacity in Phases 2 and 3 of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reopening protocols, then to 33 percent in Phase 4. While many Orthodox shuls reopened in the Five Towns, synagogues of other affiliations were tentative, and one remains closed.

Rabbi Steven Golden, of the Sephardic Temple in Cedarhurst, said that the congregation was the first to close in the Five Towns, sending an email to members on March 12 and closing the next day. “The beginning of that week, hearing the news, it was clear something was very serious,” Golden said. “I spoke with my rabbi colleagues in advance of any direction from the state.” After that, the temple conducted services on Zoom Sunday through Friday mornings only, which he said enabled the congregation to continue to connect with members who were stuck in Florida at the time.

After reopening for Shabbat services in July, the temple is planning to hold services for Rosh Hashana (Sept. 18 to 20) and Yom Kippur (Sept. 27 and 28). “It is to feel a sense of comfort as much as spiritual satisfaction,” Golden said, adding that the temple leadership has been planning for months, and certain prayers will be skipped so the synagogue can be cleaned.

For Golden, having his congregation come together for the High Holidays — and especially for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year — is akin to children returning to school and having that “sense of excitement, a new beginning with new challenges.”

“Even as adults, we recognize what the High Holidays represent,” he said. “In the past year, the guilt, then you come to the High Holidays and recognize that God takes away all the burden, and with that you celebrate as a family, grandparents, parents, children. The woes of the past year are gone, and blessings of a new year begin. That emotion is very powerful, and you want to experience it.”

Temple Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Cedarhurst, restarted in-person services for Shabbat morning last Saturday, with pre-registration and limited attendance, Rabbi Claudio Kupchik said. “We plan to have in-person High Holiday services, also with pre-registration,” he said. “We expect about 50 people to attend in-person for the holidays. Most people responded to our survey saying that they’ll watch the service online. We will continue streaming all our services in any case.”

Kupchik said that virtual services are more convenient for many people, and that since streaming began, participation has increased. “People have even joined from out of town and out of state — even from other countries,” he said. “But no online service can fully replace the embrace of a community singing together in a sanctuary.”

To minimize members’ risk of contracting Covid-19, the temple has increased social distancing, keeps attendance to under 10 percent capacity, requires masks, has installed Plexiglas partitions for the cantor and rabbi and HEPA/UV filters in the air conditioning system, and the blowing of the shofar will take place outside.

“We are social beings, and we crave being together,” Kupchik said. “This coming High Holidays, we hope to begin taking small, tentative steps towards the normalization of our religious life. We do it with care and concern, well within the state guidelines and with an eye on the pandemic figures in our county and community.”

Throughout the pandemic, Temple Israel of Lawrence, the oldest Reform synagogue on Long Island, has conducted services on Zoom. “It has worked nicely, and it has increased attendance,” Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum said. “Two factors, possibly more convenient and people are more introspective, connecting with their higher selves.”

Temple Israel will also conduct its High Holiday services virtually: Rosenbaum said that the temple hired a professional to record the services in advance. Though it pains him not to be with congregation, Rosenbaum said that Judaism is all about life: improving and preserving it. Recalling the story of

Abraham planning to sacrifice Isaac for God, Rosenbaum said, “We sacrifice for our children; we don’t sacrifice our child. We follow science and our hearts.”

For the Orthodox Union’s High Holiday guide, go to https://bit.ly/3jMqXVg.