Local congregations ready for unusual High Holiday season
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COVID-19Synagogues shift services

Local congregations ready for unusual High Holiday season

Most congregations are planning for online services, while some others are opening their doors with restrictions on the number of worshipers.

The Beth El Congregation sanctuary, like many in Pittsburgh, will be empty this High Holiday season due to COVID-19 concerns. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
The Beth El Congregation sanctuary, like many in Pittsburgh, will be empty this High Holiday season due to COVID-19 concerns. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

Amidst the anxiety and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic one thing is guaranteed: this High Holiday season will be unlike any other.

“The plans are not 100% formalized, but we are not returning to the building and having High Holy Day services,” explained Rodef Shalom Congregation’s senior vice president, Matthew Falcone. “The intent though is that we will be able to utilize the building in some way.”

The Reform congregation, like others in the city, is striving to find a balance between protecting the health of its members and finding new, meaningful ways to engage worshipers this year.

“We’ve talked about ideas to use Rodef Shalom’s ample outdoor space. We’ve thought what it might look like to activate some of that space for worship. We’ve also looked at using the main sanctuary and the other sanctuary on site for different components of the holiday service,” according to Falcone.

The leadership of the congregation is even considering using public parks or other outdoor spaces. “Of course, this is all aspirational,” he said.

Rodef Shalom will not require tickets for services this year – nor will any other congregation whose leadership spoke with the Chronicle for this article – although some may require preregistration because of capacity concerns.

Temple Sinai’s services are all going to be online, according Rabbi Darryl Crystal, the congregation’s interim senior rabbi. On Rosh Hashana morning, the congregation will host both a tot and a family service. “We’re developing out in the next week how everything else will flow,” Crystal said.

One idea Crystal is considering is recording videos for various aspects of the services. “If we don’t do tashlich in person then we’ll have a guide to do it. We may take it to the next level and not just send out materials but do a little ‘helper video.’”

“As part of our interpretation and understanding of the Torah text, we have come to the understanding that we are to live by the commandments, rather than die by them,” Temple Emanuel of South Hills’ Rabbi Aaron Meyer said, supporting his congregation’s decision not to hold physical services this year. “Choosing life has become more poignant in the age of COVID-19.”

To ensure its goal of “crafting the most meaningful High Holiday experience and preserve human life,” the congregation has crafted a hybrid model that employs, YouTube, Facebook Live and Zoom, and in-person experiences for tashlich, a cemetery remembrance service and neighborhood shofar blowing events.

“While we agonize over every different parameter within the decision, keeping our values front and center made this the clear choice,” said Meyer, echoing the feelings of many of the local congregations that have opted not to host in-person services.

Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park is following its “Summer of Hope” – which featured guest speakers for online Shabbat service– with an experience called “Fall into Faith: The High Holy Days of Comfort.”

“We’re looking at the High Holy Days as a transformative experience,” and finding ways to bring the “essence” of the High Holidays to members in a safe way, explained Temple Ohav Shalom’s Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt.

The congregation has plans to incorporate visual tefillah into the services as well as make prayer books available to members. All Pittsburgh area congregations, in fact, are working to ensure members have access to prayer books and, in some cases, yizkor candles and other holiday needs.

Congregation Beth Shalom also will be virtual for the High Holidays, streaming its services. The Conservative congregation will, however, “have a small handful of people” in the sanctuary “to conduct the service,” according to Ken Turkewitz, the congregation’s interim executive director.

In an email to its members, Beth El Congregation of the South Hills announced that High Holiday services would be “happening remotely to allow for social distancing.” A few miles away, the other South Hills Conservative synagogue, Congregation Ahavath Achim in Carnegie, will have in-person services. The congregation is currently accepting reservations and has plans to Zoom its services for those unable to attend.

Due to capacity restrictions, Shaare Torah, an Orthodox congregation in Squirrel Hill, plans to host several services throughout the day, according to Rabbi Daniel Wasserman. The services will be “in our main sanctuary and in our social hall and there will, possibly, be an outdoor option, plus some predetermined social dwellings throughout the city at predetermined spots and times on the second day,” Wasserman said.

Details still need to be finalized, but Wasserman said services would be shorter than usual to “facilitate multiple services.”

The need for social distancing and capacity restrictions may require Shaare Torah to do something atypical for the congregation.

“Someone may come and we may tell them we don’t have room in that service for them,” Wasserman said. “It’s not something I’m happy about. People are more than welcome to come but we may not be able to accommodate them.” If worshipers come and there is no room, Wasserman said, they will be asked to wait to see if everyone expected arrives, or told that they can attend the next service with space available.

Like Shaare Torah, all of the Chabad centers in the Pittsburgh area are planning in-person High Holiday services.

“We’re going to have organized services, obviously with social distancing and masks, if that’s still the requirement,” said Chabad of Squirrel Hill’s Rabbi Yisroel Altein. “This year, we are asking people to register and let us know they’re coming so that we know we are within capacity and, if people are coming together, a family, we’ll be able to maximize the space we have with social distancing.”

Chabad of Monroeville is sending out a High Holiday registration form, Rabbi Mendy Schapiro explained. The form will explain that there will be no Zoom services and that there are plans to celebrate the High Holidays in person. The space where those services will be held, though, has not yet been determined.

“There are two options we’re looking at: an indoor space with more limited crowds and possibly two services; option two would be an outdoor location we have within the community. Whoever signs up through our website will receive the information a few days before leading up to Rosh Hashana.”

“Nothing is confirmed except that we will be doing a regular service in the sanctuary that will be highly limited,” said Chabad of the South Hills’ Rabbi Mendy Rosenblum. “The most we can fit in the space is 40 people. That’s going to be reservation-only even though Chabad is usually wide open.”

Rosenblum also plans to offer an abridged service multiple times throughout the day, based on the number of people interested, that will include the “essence of davening.”

Rabbi Ron Symons pointed out that the goal of this year’s High Holidays “is to maintain social distancing while ensuring connection.”

Several hundred people have attended the Jewish Community Center’s Center for Loving Kindness High Holiday programs the last several years. This year, Symons, who heads the Center for Loving Kindness, is working on “Rosh Hashana in the Park,” to be held at the Henry Kaufmann Family Park in Monroeville. The physically distanced program “is dependent on what we are allowed to do and what is in the best interest of the community.”

Already decided, Symons explained, is Yom Kippur’s Zoom program, called “High Holidays of Hope.”

“We’re going to explore the lessons the Jewish community of Charlottesville, Virginia learned during and after the Unite the White rally of 2017,” Symons said.

Temple Sinai’s Crystal recommends that no matter where you celebrate the High Holidays you prepare to make the time special.

“You may want to get flowers, you want to make sure your devices are silenced,” the rabbi said. “You might want to think about the clothes you wear.”

Another suggestion from the rabbi is plugging your computer into your television and watching the service on a big screen. “Sanctifying the space is really important.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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