'A remarkably different experience': Jewish High Holy Days celebrations affected by COVID-19

Catie Wegman Treasure Coast NewspapersPublished 6:00 AM EDT Sep 18, 2020Mass gatherings go hand-in-hand with h

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Mass gatherings go hand-in-hand with holiday celebrations, but not this year. 

Religious services move online, families gather via webcams, and the coronavirus pandemic has all but ensured nothing will be traditional — a sad realization the Jewish community soon faces as the High Holy Days begin Friday at sundown. 

The 10-day period known as the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana — the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement, is usually spent with plenty of face-to-face interactions. Jews flock to temple, listen to the shofar blowing, dip apples in honey together — to bring in a sweet new year — and fast as a community. 

All such ceremonies won't be the same this year. 

"It’s a remarkably different experience than one these people have ever, ever experienced before," said Rabbi Bruce Benson, of Temple Beth El Israel in Port St. Lucie. "Almost every piece of (the High Holy Days) is different than it has ever been."

Services outside temple

The High Holy Days — starting with Rosh Hashana Friday night and ending with Yom Kippur on Sept. 28 — are largely dependent on shared experiences, Benson said, an aspect of the celebrations that has been precluded.

Nonetheless, the community has to adapt. 

The Chabad Jewish Center of Martin & St. Lucie County in Palm City knew it would be impossible to host in-person services at its synagogue while maintaining social distancing requirements, said Rabbi Shlomo Uminer. 

The center has rented out the ballroom at the Marriott Hutchinson Island to host four services throughout the High Holy Days where attendees can be seated 6-feet apart, Uminer said. Reservations are required in advance, and everyone must wear a mask. 

Another ritual Uminer wanted to ensure the Jewish community wouldn't miss was the blowing of the shofar, or a ram's horn, which concludes Rosh Hashana and ushers in the new year.

Chabad Jewish Center is hosting an outdoor shofar blowing Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at the Stuart Causeway on Hutchinson Island. 

"It’s hard. Many feel distant, cut off or isolated, and it doesn’t feel right around the holidays," Uminer said. "But we’re trying to connect spiritually and emotionally."

Most temples opted to broadcast services virtually, though, having been accustomed to doing so since COVID-19 halted in-person gatherings, said Rabbi Michael Birnholz, of Temple Beth Shalom in Vero Beach. 

Birnholz will live stream the temple's Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. 

Temple Beth Israel prerecorded its High Holy Days services, not wanting potential glitches to interrupt the Jewish community's experience, Benson said. The temple will also host an outdoor shofar blowing in its parking lot on Sunday at 1 p.m. 

Loss of connection

Many have already expressed sadness and concern to the rabbis that these sacred traditions must be done at home this year — and for some, completely alone. 

Chabad Jewish Center put together a "Rosh Hashana Quarantine Survival Kit" filled with challah bread, apple and honey, a booklet of holiday prayers and more to comfort members and show that the community is still spiritually with them, Uminer said. 

But people are really going to have to take it upon themselves to maintain as much normalcy as possible, Benson added. 

"It’s going to become a very individual experience of people trying to replicate something  that for decades has been shared with the broader community," Benson said. "I think it’s going to be a challenge, but not one the community can’t meet. It requires people to go into the experience with a different mind set."

Benson has told his members to still dress as one would going to temple even though they'll be watching services from the living room, he said. Replicate the synagogue: Silence the cell phone, put out a tablecloth, sing along to the hymns, light candles. 

A wider community 

Virtual ceremonies do offer a blessing in disguise, though, Birnholz said.

Jews across the nation can share and participate in the same online service, bringing friends and family together to celebrate the High Holy Days despite being physically apart. 

"Because it’s virtual, we’re able to configure our community in a different way," Birnholz said. "It’s creating something powerful in the midst of a challenge."

Members have already told Birnholz people from California and Canada plan to attend Temple Beth Shalom's live stream, he said. 

Benson added that virtual gatherings also allow for those in the broader Jewish community to dabble in different services and, hopefully, find a synagogue to join. 

Catie Wegman is a community reporter who also produces "Ask Catie," an occasional feature to find answers to your burning questions about anything and everything — the more bizarre the better. Support her work with a TCPalm subscription. Contact her at catie.wegman@tcpalm.com or 772-221-4211 and follow her @Catie_Wegman on Twitter and @catiewegman1 on Facebook. 

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