As the world continues to grapple with the consequences of the coronavirus crisis, Jewish communities face unprecedented challenges in finding ways to safely observe the High Holiday season. The staff of the Jewish Association on Aging is working to meet those challenges for the residents of Charles Morris Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, Weinberg Village and Weinberg Terrace, and tenants at the New Riverview Apartments, by adapting familiar traditions.
“It’s going to be the same, but it’s going to be different,” said Rabbi Eli Seidman, the JAA’s director of pastoral care.
Residents still will be offered the opportunity to reflect on the previous year and focus on hope for the future, he said, but in a different way.
“We’re not going to have a big service with the whole community,” Seidman said. “We’re not going to have the rabbi’s sermon, we’re not going to have singing. We’re going to have shorter [broadcast] services and no kiddush and honey cake with a chance to schmooze.”
One holiday ritual that will remain is the blowing of the shofar. The shofar blasts will be prerecorded, and Seidman will fit a blue surgical mask over the horn.
When the pandemic required the cancellation of large community seders at Passover, Seidman had hoped by the High Holidays residents would again be able to celebrate together. Unfortunately, the uptick in cases in Allegheny County the last several months has required the JAA to maintain strict safety protocols. As of press time, there had been no new positive cases of COVID-19 at JAA facilities in several weeks.
“We are dealing with the most vulnerable people, the most vulnerable populations,” Seidman said.
In past years, the Orthodox rabbi offered two services at JAA facilities: A Hebrew service on Rosh Hashanah morning and another, quicker service in English. This year, the rabbi has recorded a half-hour service that will be broadcast on closed-circuit TV. Keeping to the “same but different” theme, Seidman has included a version of Avinu Malkeinu sung by Barbra Streisand.
Another half-hour service will be recorded for Yom Kippur, including Shlomo Carlebach performing Kol Nidre. There will be no in-person services at the JAA facilities.
Residents are accustomed to visits with relatives during the holiday season, but in-person visits have been halted for months. Despite window visits and FaceTime calls, residents are fighting feelings of loneliness and social isolation, the rabbi said. He anticipates those feelings to be particularly difficult during Yom Kippur’s Yizkor service.
“You’re still remembering, but not in the group and the group gives strength,” Seidman said. “Think about going through difficult times — your family and your friends help you, the people next to you help you, the neighbors help you, seeing others going through the same thing helps you. So now, we don’t have the group and we all have to work a little harder. That includes me, that includes the residents and staff and nurses.”
For Seidman, who retires in October, this will be the final time he oversees High Holiday services at the JAA, making this season particularly bittersweet.
Before his tenure with the JAA, Seidman served as an Army chaplain from 1987 to 1995. He served in the National Guard until 2014.
“We used to speak about making a ‘sacred space’ out in the field, far from a synagogue or temple, even on the hood of a Jeep,” he said. “With extra effort, any space can be sacred.”
The rabbi learned a lesson during his time in the Army that is particularly relevant this year, he said: “Synagogue helps us to create an atmosphere, and without it, it’s more difficult, but we can do it.”
In addition to High Holiday services, the JAA staff is endeavoring to make the season feel special in other ways, working within the precautions put in place due to the pandemic.
The residents will be able to view a video prepared by Rabbi Eli Wilansky showing how shofars are created and will have a holiday meal filled with traditional favorites.
“We’re serving traditional brisket, apple kugel, honey cake and fresh challah bread with raisins,” said Michael Kohanbash, JAA’s director of food and nutrition. “We really try and keep the holidays nice and traditional with comfort food people are used to eating.”
Kohanbash likes to serve a new fruit each year, honoring the mitzvah of the first fruits. This year residents will sample star fruit.
At the New Riverview Apartments there will be an extra holiday treat from Hanna Steiner, director of Riverview: a flower for each of the residents.
While the holidays will be different this year at the JAA, Sharyn Rubin, the director of resident and community services at Charles Morris, is confident that “the sentiment will be there.”
“In some ways, we’re going to be more celebratory because we’ve gotten to this point,” Rubin said. “We’re hoping that we’ve gotten through the summer with COVID behind us. We’re filled with hope and it’s a new year and I think it resonates a lot.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.