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How COVID-19 has disrupted Judaism’s most sacred High Holidays

One of Utah’s Jewish congregations plans to meet indoors while another is prerecording services for members to view at home

Rabbi Samuel Spector and Cantor Laurence Loeb review the materials before prerecording the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Under “normal” circumstances, Rabbi Samuel L. Spector might find preparing for Judaism’s most sacred High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be more fulfilling and joyful.

But because of COVID-19 and gathering restrictions, Congregation Kol Ami is prerecording this year’s services weeks in advance and the rabbi says he’s working around the clock to complete preparations.

“This year it’s insane. I’m like in my freakout mode right now. I’m mega stressed,” he said. “I’m working over 100 hours a week, that’s what this time of year is like. I say it’s my tax season. ... This is the month when I question all my life choices, but we’ll get through it.”

Rosh Hashanah, which means “head of the year” and is referred to as the Jewish New Year, begins on the evening of Friday, Sept. 18, and ends the evening of Sunday, Sep. 20.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, starts the evening of Sunday, Sept. 27, and ends the evening of Monday, Sept. 28.

For Jews, the period connecting these important dates means an opportunity to gather, reflect and celebrate with family and friends. During a typical year, Jews take time off from work and large crowds assemble at their respective synagogues. Yom Kippur includes more prayer and a daylong fast.

These three days combined — the two days of Rosh Hashanah and the day of Yom Kippur — are the three most important days of the year and the “pinnacle of the Jewish calendar,” said Rabbi Benny Zippel, executive director of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah.

The spread of COVID-19 has disrupted plans and forced synagogues to make other arrangements.

When the novel coronavirus broke out in March, Rabbi Zippel says Jews at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah moved services from their regular sanctuary into a larger social hall where physical distancing and disinfecting was more easily accomplished.

For the high holidays, Chabad Lubavitch of Utah had planned to meet outdoors under a tent in the parking lot but was not granted a permit by Salt Lake City. The reason given was fire truck access, the rabbi said.

Rabbi Samuel Spector prerecords the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020.
Rabbi Samuel Spector prerecords the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

“Services will have to be inside with all COVID precautions,” Rabbi Zippel said. “Very unfortunate.”

Rabbi Zippel added that with limited space, preregistration will be mandatory (look for additional information on the website, jewishutah.com). “COVID enforcers” will also be in place to ensure safety regulations are followed.

In years past, the Congregation Kol Ami synagogue has seen upward of 800 people for the high holidays.

In an abundance of safety this year, members will be able to watch prerecorded services from the comfort of their couches thanks to a unique link and password.

“The reason we’re prerecording is so we can make sure that all comes together nicely,” Rabbi Spector said. “We have different people doing different parts and this allows us to record those without having too many people in the room at once.”

Many Jewish congregations in the Los Angeles area have similar virtual plans, according to Los Angeles Magazine. Like Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, Chabad Bel Air will host an outdoor service.

One congregation, Valley Beth Shalom, is sending a gift bag to each family with “everything you need to celebrate the holiday.”

“It’ll have a prayer book and it’ll have honey to celebrate the sweetness and it’ll have a special surprise that will open up during one of the services,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, spiritual leader at Valley Beth Shalom, in the article.

This is the second year in a row that Congregation Kol Ami has been forced away from its synagogue for Rosh Hashanah. Less than two hours before 2019 services were set to start, a telephone pole down the street was damaged and knocked out the synagogue’s power. After a scramble of phone calls, Rosh Hashanah began, but in an unfamiliar location — members were seated inside a nearby Latter-day Saint ward meetinghouse, Rabbi Spector said.

Rabbi Samuel Spector reviews the Bible while prerecording the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020.
Rabbi Samuel Spector reviews the Bible while prerecording the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service at Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

“If we have a power outage this year and everything is live-streamed, we’re in a lot of trouble,” he said. “We learned our lesson from last year. With prerecording we’re leaving nothing to chance.”

Rabbi Spector said the high holiday services are usually just for members, but people of other faiths can join digitally by purchasing an online ticket for $180 at conkolami.org.

Rabbi Spector encouraged other faith communities to be supportive and understanding of Jewish employees or students who ask for time off during high holidays. He also hopes those watching from home will take at least one message to heart during a “time of chaos.”

“This has been a year like none other, it’s taking a toll on everyone,” he said. “I’ll be talking a good bit about loving your neighbor as yourself. ... We need to be cheering for each other and also ourselves.”

Until the COVID-19 outbreak, what Rabbi Zippel observed in the average person was an unspoken attitude of invincibility.

“In other words, there’s nothing that could ever come our way that we wouldn’t be able to overcome because we’re so smart and we’re so rich and we’re so this and we’re so that, there is nothing that we couldn’t overcome,” he said.

“I think the greatest lesson from COVID, which is very unsettling for a lot of people, is that at the end of the day, whether you want to consider yourself a believer in a higher power or not ... we’re kind of almost forced to realize that we’re not invincible. There is a higher power that has the ultimate control of this world ... and people are almost forced to recognize and to acknowledge a higher power. I think a lot of people will use the appropriate time of the high holidays to connect to that higher power, which they should.”