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.