Holidays are complicated. Even those of us who are not religiously observant often find meaning in annual celebrations. They remind us to appreciate the good that we experience every day, provide a respite from the mundane routine of our lives and give us an opportunity to spend time with loved ones. Many of us even look forward to holidays despite their stressful moments as we try to juggle food, personalities and logistics without insulting Aunt Miriam or Uncle David.
During difficult times, though, the observance of holidays can stir up challenging emotions that may be lurking beneath the surface. This is especially true of the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as these days are focused on taking stock of the past year and evaluating our actions and relationships. Past experiences of hurt or regret can remain compartmentalized for much of the year but are more likely to bubble back up to the surface during intense family get-togethers this time of the year.
Why is this year different from all other years (sorry, wrong holiday)? In normal times, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur often include gathering extended family and friends together, sitting around a large dining room table to enjoy a festive meal, and (for many of us) praying shoulder to shoulder in synagogue with members of our community.
Sadly, most of us will not be able to do many of these things this year because of the risk of spreading COVID-19. Our dining rooms may seem larger and emptier as we think about our loved ones who were not able to join us. Our food may be simpler, to accommodate the smaller number of people. And many of us may experience this year as the first year in our lives in which we did not attend synagogue services during the High Holy Days.
As a result of these changes, we are likely to become inundated with a wide range of powerful feelings, including loss, isolation, fear, guilt and anxiety. Although we know that the coronavirus is beyond our control, we may still find ourselves responding to these changes by thinking, “Am I being a good son/daughter? Am I being a good friend? Am I being a good Jew?” We may be wondering how we could possibly celebrate anything under conditions of face masks and social distancing.
But just because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be different this year does not mean they can’t be joyful and meaningful in a different way. Judaism has adapted and evolved through thousands of years and countless migrations across the globe. From the deserts of the Middle East to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, these changes have always taken place in the context of certain constants — especially the emphasis on the value of human relationships.
In our own Pittsburgh community, the Jewish tradition of adapting to challenges continues today. Right now, congregations and organizations are finding creative ways to connect people to each other through online religious services, socially distanced outdoor gatherings and contactless delivery of holiday packages. None of these arrangements are ideal, but they reflect our desire to maintain relationships with each other and to preserve our community identity.
With all of these changes and adaptations, there will of course still be a gap between our desire to celebrate these holidays “normally” and the very different way in which we actually observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year. How do we bridge this gap and reconcile ourselves to the reality of this change? We do so by turning to our community — reaching out to people we care about for help and support. After all, we all believe at a very core level that no one in our community should need to struggle alone. And if friends and family aren’t able to provide the help that’s needed, organizations like JFCS can provide the professional guidance that can make the difference between quiet desperation and successful coping.
The Jewish new year is a time of hope and renewal. As we continue to live through an era of unprecedented loss and upheaval, we remain hopeful that better times are in store. And so, I share my wish with you that this new year will truly be a sweet one in which we will be able to come together again as a community in celebration. PJC
Jordan Golin is president & CEO of JFCS.