PeppermintPatty attends Erev Rosh Hashanah via Zoom

Okay, that was weird. And it didn’t help any that I had just learned Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. I’m going to chalk that up to last year…

So, my congregation is holding services for the high holy days. For the regular Sabbath services the clergy has been broadcasting from their homes, but for the high holy days they have decided to open the building. Sort of.

Some background: The focal point of the service is the bimah, a raised platform where the rabbi, and anyone else who is leading the service stands. There’s a large table on the bimah where the torah will be placed when it is read. Behind the bimah is the ark, a large, ornate cupboard that houses the torah(s).

Only… this year, in front of the ark there is a large table on one side, and two large plexiglass boxes next to it, each of which contains a smaller table. The boxes are about 3x3 meters wide, perhaps 4 or 5 meters high, and open in the back.

The clergy came in together, and stood together to put on their prayer shawls and say the blessing for that. Then they separated – the rabbi to one side of the larger table, one of the assistant rabbis to the other side, the cantor into the plexiglass box directly in front of the ark, and the other music leader* to the other box. As they separate, they remove their masks.

The congregants are all muted, and the cantor starts with the usual “let’s get ready to pray” music.

The camera pans the scene, and there are three musicians, on piano, hand drums, and guitar, to the other side of the plexiglass boxes. They are well distanced from each other, and wearing masks. They left their masks on for the entire service, since they make sounds with their hands, not their mouth.

There is no one else visible in the room, which normally seats a few hundred for Sabbath services. Someone is running the camera, but that’s probably from another room, as the cameras were installed several years ago to broadcast locally, and it’s a fairly sophisticated set-up. (Originally we broadcast on the local “public access” station, now we just live-stream from the Temple’s website.)

The song ends, and the rabbi welcomes us, and also introduces the other assistant rabbi, who is in the Temple’s library, which also serves as a secondary sanctuary for small services.

He jokes a little about how we can fall asleep in our own beds while participating the in the service, but he hopes to wake us up, and this is the season for moral work and action.

He had a laptop on the bimah, which he told us was so he could look at us, too. (and he asked congregants to wave, or put their hand over their heart, from time to time, joking that he wanted to see if we were really there. Only about a third of the participants had video on, though.)

He also told us that during the portions of the service when the Cantor would ordinarily face the Torah, she will remain facing forward (towards the plexiglass) because our “reopening committee” recommends that is safer.

It was a VERY abbreviated service, just hitting the most important parts. Typically this service would have run about 1.5 hours, but they correctly judged that no one wants to sit through a long service on zoom. (The orthodox actually have a shorter evening service, but they make up for it with a much longer service on Rosh Hashanah morning.) The news of RBF’s passing hit right before we began, and I’m sure the clergy didn’t know about it when the entered the sanctuary.

When we prayed for healing, about halfway in, they opened up the Zoom chat and asked us to type the names of people we were praying for who needed healing of body, soul, or spirit. Several people mentioned Ginsburg, often including “RIP”, so I’m glad I learned about it before the service began, because that would have been supremely distracting.

Towards the end, when we recited the mourner’s kaddish (a prayer said by those who are mourning, and by the congregation in support of them) the rabbi spoke briefly about Ginsburg, claiming her as one of ours. I confess I’d forgotten she was Jewish. I wept.

We ended with a children’s song, complete with hand actions (grant us peace and friendship, showing two peace symbols for “peace” and sort of hugging yourself for “friendship”, for instance).

Then off to the home of our retired cantor – she and her husband, also a retired cantor, led us in blessing the wine. This is the first year of her retirement, so the rabbis said, “this is the first time in 40 years that you’ve been able to have a leisurely Rosh Hashanah supper – what did you eat?” She blushed and said they hadn’t eaten yet.

Then we had some logistical announcements, and the rabbi said that this year, instead of giving everyone a book he wanted us to read, he wanted the congregation to write a book (a book of life) based on a series of questions he would be emailing us over the course of the holidays.

And then they briefly unmuted everyone so we could greet each other. It was less cacophonous than the last time I attended a zoom service; I guess people have learned not to say too much with hundreds on the line.

Really weird. I needed to unpack that.

  • There’s a guy who grew up in the congregation, but has since moved to NYC and made a career as a Jewish musician, sort of like Debbie Freedman, but not as successful. He comes back every year for the High Holy days and works with the cantor.

The morning services have been split into three zoom services, and an in-person, outdoor shofar service. Morning service at 9, Torah at 10, other major prayers and sermon at 11, with short breaks between, and 6 instances of the shofar service, each limited to 130 people.

I misunderstood the staging yesterday. The assistant rabbi is actually at a different table from the senior rabbi’s table, and they are about 15 feet from each other.

When the rabbi walks behind the Cantor to open it close the ark, he donned his mask – white for the high holy days.

In the morning service we had a zoom visit from the rabbi of our sister congregation in Haifa. I learned that Israel is in really bad shape (re the pandemic) right now. And her sermon was about how you can’t see through the shofar, the hole is small, and it’s twisted. But if you have faith, and blow through it, you can make a beautiful noise that opens hearts.

For the actual reading of the Torah they pre-recorded people reading in the Temple’s library. I realized that i have never before seen a person standing alone while reading from a Torah. There are always others supporting the reader, standing at her side, looking on at the text.

The rabbi usually calls up large groups of people for Aliyah on the high holidays, and this year was no different. But this time, he asked people in the named groups to hold up a card to the camera, or raise their hand if they didn’t get the card. (Given out by the temple in the past few days, with some other hhd goodies.)

The sermon was given by the assistant rabbi. The song leaders donned their masks and left their plexiglass cages to sit down, and the chief rabbi also masked up and sat.

He spoke about racial inequality, listing several ways that blacks fare worse than whites in the US (including covid mortality) and spoke in favor of black lives matter. He said that he had given a sermon on the same topic 4 years ago, and things have only gotten worse. He urged us to be anti-racists, and said that you can do that even if harbor some racism yourself. You don’t have to be perfect, you just need to try to improve.

That service ended with some music and the mourners’ kaddish. The rabbi again mentioned Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and asked congregants to type the names of people they are mourning into zoom chat.

We ended with logistic stuff, and a plea to remember the annual food drive even though we aren’t physically present. Our annual high holy day food drive has become the majority of the budget for our local food pantry, and the needs are only greater this year.

And then the zoom transitioned into a brief shofar service for people who won’t attend in person.

L’Shana Tova! The fun part about Zoom is that I have access to services around the country. I typically log into my current synagogue but spend a lot of time with a former synagogue that I had to leave because I moved away. But I also spent some time at services in a few other synagogues. The highlight for me was seeing the Musaf service from Alberto Mizrahi, one of the greatest cantors of our time. Though his voice has clearly suffered the effects of age, he can still boom out those high notes. He sang with recordings of his choir in the background, which seemed a bit karaoke-ish but as someone who has sung in choirs for years it was a nice gesture to have them involved in the service in some way.

My local synagogue did the interactive Zoom thing for the entire service. Most other synagogues either stick with a livestream format or use Zoom in Webinar mode so that only a select number of panelists could participate.

L’Shana tova to you, too.

My synagogue is huge – we had three separate zoom sessions, each with a few hundred participants, because they weren’t sure they could fit us all in one. So they kept most of us muted except briefly, at the very end. But they opened the chat from time to time, for people to name a person they were mourning, for instance, or someone for whom they wanted to pray for healing.

The Yom Kippur service was much like Rosh Hashanah, broken into several 50-minute segments, with breaks. It was all live except for the Torah readings and a short video of our choir singing, which looked like it had been taken at a concert, shot before the pandemic, but was our choir, and was a traditional Yom Kippur prayer.

One guy was reading the NYT during the Torah service – not something I’ve ever seen before. :slight_smile: probably 200 of the 300 people in my zoom session had turned off video, so it’s not as if he had to have the video on.

For the final aliyah of the day, the rabbi called “up” all the people who had never heard of zoom prior to 7 months ago. “May God bless these adult learners… may they always know when they are muted and unmuted…”