The J Factor: West Hartford synagogues offering virtual, outdoor prayer options for High Holidays

Nachum Silver blows a “masked” Shofar at a Young Israel outdoor morning service.

With the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fast approaching, West Hartford area synagogues are finding new and creative ways for the Jewish community to congregate, celebrate and worship safely during the Covid-10 pandemic.

Like all houses of worship, synagogues have worked overtime during the past six months to maintain a semblance of connection, comfort and community for its congregants, amid building closures and social distancing protocols. Most have successfully transitioned most of their Sabbath services and communal programs to online formats.

But the High Holidays pose a unique challenge. They are the days when Jews flock to synagogues en masse — including the many who normally don’t attend services during the year — to get together to contemplate their blessings, reflect on shortcomings, and pray for a happy and healthy year.

So, what does a rabbi do to ensure that this year will be as meaningful, spiritual, and fulfilling?

“Like everyone else, we are making every effort to embrace the uniqueness of the time — and not dwell on its negatives — but aim to reach people in creative ways that add depth,” says Rabbi James Rosen of Temple Beth El.

For most Conservative and Reform synagogues, this means providing in-person and virtual options — heavily weighted in the latter — such as livestreaming and pre-recording parts of the Holiday services, while conducting other parts over Zoom. For the Emanuel Synagogue, which boasts a very large sanctuary, this means offering the bulk of prayer services online, but conducting Ne’eliah, the culminating service on Yom Kippur, in person.

The similarly-sized Congregation Beth Israel is going all-virtual for its High Holiday services, and is even broadcasting them on local West Hartford and Farmington Valley TV stations. In addition, they are teaming up with other area Reform synagogues, including Temple Sinai, Temple Beth Hillel, Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation and Kol Haverim to provide a joint healing service and Jewish study programs. All these offerings are available free to the general public.

“This might be the first time in Jewish history that High Holidays services will be free,” quipped CBI’s Rabbi Michael Pincus, alluding to the normal practice of synagogues requiring non-members to purchase tickets or make a donation to attend High Holiday services.

He also points out that with so many services available online, community members may participate or sample multiple synagogue services from their living rooms and see where they feel most comfortable.

But being comfortable — or inspired — to pray virtually from your own home during the High Holidays may prove challenging, says FVRC’s Rabbi Bekah Goldman. That’s why her synagogue is distributing care packages to all her congregants, which include High Holiday treats and other essentials to help them make their homes into a mikdash, Hebrew for holy place, that feels more suitable for virtual prayer.

While switching to virtual services is the primary go-to strategy for Reform and Conservative congregations, West Hartford’s growing Orthodox community does not have that option. Abiding by religious practices that mostly prohibit the active use of electricity, machinery and technology on the Sabbath and most Jewish Holidays, has required the congregations of Young Israel, Beth David and Chabad to offer in-person prayer exclusively.

Beth David’s High Holiday services will be held in its sanctuary, Chabad will offer both indoor and outdoor services under a tent, and Young Israel will hold services exclusively outdoors, also under a large tent. All are applying varying social distancing and cleaning measures to ensure everyone’s safety.

Young Israel, for example, is holding two and a half hour services “morning until night” with strict participant limits, with 15-minute pauses in between for cleaning. “Everyone will be required to wear masks,” says Rabbi Tuvia Brander, the spiritual leader of Young Israel. “Even [the open part of] the Shofar will have a mask on it.”

While all these additional arrangements and protocols will provide a great High Holiday prayer experience in these unusual times, most synagogues are also going the extra mile in the days leading up to the High Holidays to help their congregants get into the holiday spirit, and feel part of a loving community.

Just about all congregations are distributing care packages to their congregants, that include apples and honey, prayer books, baked goods, study guides, candles, and more. Some are also enlisting volunteer “Shofar blowers” to go to various facilities, communities and homes, so people who can’t participate in services will get to hear the sounds of the Shofar (Ram’s Horn), a highlight of Rosh Hashanah.

All these extra new touches and prayer options are “a lot of work,” according to synagogue clergy and leadership. “Not only are the rabbis and staff being asked to do more,” says Mel Simon, president of the Emanuel Synagogue, “but congregants have also had to step up their involvement, such as serving on safety committees and hosting Zoom and streaming services.”

But all say it’s worth it.

“One silver lining out of all this is that our congregants are getting to lead services, instead of us hiring a chazzan like we normally do,” says Rabbi Brander, who reported that volunteers from his shul (Yiddish for synagogue) were trained at the Orthodox Union’s “[Cantor] Boot Camp” to lead High Holiday services.

Both Rabbi Rosen and Rabbi Pincus predicted that some of the virtual methods being piloted this year are likely to “enhance” engagement and include more people in synagogue services and activities in the future.

And, FVRC’s Rabbi Goldman says she loves the idea of “getting out of our buildings and praying in beautiful outdoor spaces.”

While Rabbi Goldman agrees High Holiday preparations this year have taken “a lot more energy” than usual, she is grateful to be a part of such a vibrant Jewish community.

“I’m from Lake Charles, Louisiana, where hardly any Jews were around us,” she says. “And here, I’m surrounded by so many congregants and synagogues with which I have the pleasure of working together, so I’ve got no complaints.”

That’s the spirit.

For a full of listing of area synagogues and more information on High Holiday services, activities and safety measures, please go to the Jewish Federation’s website at https://www.jewishhartford.org/synagogues.

Connecticut Media Group