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Nine rabbis reflect on celebrating the High Holidays in a tumultuous year.

Ron Agam star


The world has changed dramatically since we last gathered to celebrate the High Holidays — the Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the way that we congregate. As we look toward coming together for our virtual services in 5781 with Rabbi Elka Abrahamson next month, we’re reflecting on the ways in which this year’s celebrations will feel different than they have in the past.

In anticipation of these celebrations, Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein reached out to Jewish spiritual leaders from across the country to join him in reflection on this question: how will the High Holidays be different this year? Their generous responses, compiled below, offer crucial wisdom about where we’ve been as Jews this year, and new perspectives on how we might approach this season of renewal.
 

Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein, Director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life

New Year worship services always provide opportunities for reflection, atonement and the recalibration of personal goals and priorities. But this year is different in so many ways. This year we will not be in our synagogue and the sanctuary in which we will pray will be of our own making. This year our “congregation” is dispersed, beyond our touch. Our binding communal experience will be by gazing at our screens. This year our world is convulsing with a pandemic and we will be celebrating the holidays as our nation wrestles with inequalities of which we may not have previously taken note... We will join together differently this year, but perhaps we need to be together more than ever.
 

Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove, PhD, Park Avenue Synagogue, NYC

Every year, the High Holidays remind us that important as individual introspection may be, we are all part of a greater community. Every year, the act of Heshbon Hanefesh (audit of the soul) prompts us to reflect on the degree to which we have fulfilled our communal obligations. This year will be different for so many of us in that we will be praying physically distant from the communities that define our Jewish being. How will each one of us, even and especially in our present circumstances, lean into community — all Jews interconnected one with another? The challenge and the opportunity are clear — may we all rise to the occasion.
 

Rabbi Rachel Timoner, Congregation Beth Elohim (Brooklyn)

5780 has been different from any year we've experienced before. Though so much about our lives feels upside down, one thing has remained constant — our need for one another. If the rise in antisemitism, the global pandemic, the climate crisis, the uprisings for racial justice, and the threats to democracy have taught us anything, it is that we are interconnected in an inescapable fabric of mutuality. We cannot solve any of these problems alone. We need one another in order to be safe, in order to be healthy, in order to have a future, and in order to be free.
 

Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, Isaac M. Wise Temple (Cincinnati)

This year’s Days of Awe are different not only because of setting, but because we are different. Compared to the past, we bring a deeper sense of gratitude to our prayers and our celebration, a more acute sense of vulnerability, and a greater sense of preciousness for what really matters in our life. And while the familiar prayers and music may be virtual rather than in physical community, this distance can be filled with the fuller sense of who we are, what we really yearn for, and all to which we commit ourselves, our time, our resources, our passion, and our sense of purposeful living for the year to come.
 

Rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl, Central Synagogue (NYC)

When we are farthest apart, we need to be closer than ever. Closer to our community, our tradition, to God and to each other. This is what we have learned over the last five months of this global pandemic. These High Holidays will be a historic, unprecedented “gathering,” with empty sanctuaries, distanced families, and virtual-only offerings. However, we will still announce this new year by sounding the shofar, as our ancestors have done for millennia. We will still hear the haunting strains of Kol Nidrei, beat our chests for our collective sins, and cry out to God to hear our pleas, grant us atonement, and write us in the Book of Life. These rituals have never felt more meaningful, and this year, they will serve to bring us closer than ever.
 

Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, Westchester Day School (Mamaroneck)

We have been disrupted and, like all challenges, we can either retreat or advance. We can choose to look at all we are implementing in our lives as accommodations or innovations. Staying home on the High Holidays if one needs to, wearing a mask if one can attend services, praying sotto voce, are beautiful examples of the still small voice being heard, with the impact of the great shofar being sounded. In these ways, we voice the power of these days’ sanctity.
 

Rabbi Ruth A. Zlotnick, Temple Beth Am (Seattle)

It seems to me that the Coronavirus pandemic has spurred the whole world to wrestle with the themes of the Days of Awe—quieting down the busyness of life; confronting our mortality; re-evaluating what matters most to us. Some years, it is hard to connect with the omnipotence of God as described in “Avinu Malkeinu,” or the stark reality of Unatana tokef, which reminds us that in the year ahead some will live, and some will die. This year, I am acutely aware of the enduring relevance of the liturgy. I am reminded that it evolved in other times and other places where our ancestors confronted catastrophes and uncertainty, and still somehow emerged from that confrontation ready to affirm life. With gratitude to them, I am ready to approach this season with new eyes.
 

Rabbi Steve Leder, Wilshire Boulevard Temple (Los Angeles)

The Untanatokef reminds us that we are far from the first generation of Jews to live in precarious times. Then and now, the answer to living with danger and uncertainty is to double down on our relationships with the people we love (Teshuvah), to be mindful and count our many blessings even and especially in the midst of our losses (T'filah), and to reach out to help the vulnerable who need us more than ever (Tzedakah). 
 

Rabbi Josh Davidson, Congregation Emanu-El (NYC)

The Days of Awe have always awakened me, as they do so many of us, with a jolt of “Jewish energy.” As a congregational rabbi, I am, every year, inspired by returning from the quiet solitude of summer to the frenetic bustle of temple life, and by standing in the presence of fellow worshippers in our beautiful sanctuary.  This year will be different — sort of. While we may be apart from one another physically, we will unite in shared spiritual purpose. These Holy Days, we will make our homes God’s home. And isn’t that what the Holy Days have always asked of us?

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Art: Ron Agam, Homage to Hope, 2018 acrylic and resin on panel, 72” x 72” x 3.5” Homage to Hope was presented as part of Ron Agam: Experience Experimentation in 92Y’s Weill Art Gallery, Jan 16–Feb 27, 2019.

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