Rosh Hashana may mark the new year for Jewish communities, but as the delta variant of the coronavirus causes new COVID-19 cases to surge around the Puget Sound area, it’s starting to look like this year’s holiday season will have a lot in common with 2020. 

Last year, it was a scramble. 

As COVID-19 cases surged around the state, countywide mandates banned large in-person gatherings and synagogues all over the Puget Sound area found themselves finagling with cameras and internet connections to provide religious services for the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. 

In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) make up the High Holy Days, and they are a time for reflection and renewal. As the High Holy Days approach this Sept. 6-16, local rabbis are invoking the meaning of the holidays to encourage their congregants to examine and make peace with what has happened over the past 18 months, and to consider what changes they can make even as the pandemic creates limits. 

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Last year, some families viewed streaming Rosh Hashana services from their homes, choirs sang together over Zoom and some observers gathered outdoors in local parks to sound the shofar (a ram’s horn traditionally used to mark the beginning of the holiday). 

This year, although there is no ban on in-person gatherings, some synagogues are continuing to hold exclusively virtual offerings for the holidays or offering virtual options in addition to limited capacity in-person or outdoor services.

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“[Last year] we had to be creative. How do you support someone that loses a loved one, how do you do this online, without hugging, without being in person? How do you make a wedding [happen]?” said Rabbi Darío Feiguin, who took over as rabbi at Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island in 2020.

Now, Kol Shalom hosts service outdoors every Saturday morning in the backyard of the congregation. About 30 people come every week, masked and socially distanced. 

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Religious leaders may be more prepared this year as they’ve gotten the hang of their online platforms and COVID-19 safety protocols, but they never expected the pandemic would still be an issue after a year and a half. So now they’re grappling with guiding their congregants through another High Holy Days season with the unwanted company of the pandemic.  

“I think people are frustrated,” said Rabbi Allison Flash, who is currently serving as a support rabbi at Kol HaNeshamah in West Seattle. “They’re disappointed. They expected to be in person again for the high holidays.”  

While Seattle is seeing fewer cases and deaths due to the delta variant than certain hot spots around the country, Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum of the Kavana Cooperative, an independent Jewish community in Seattle, says people are also suffering in other ways. 

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“The pandemic has been tough on everyone, especially as it now feels like it’s dragging on with no real end in sight,” said Nussbaum. “This has manifested as isolation for older adults, tremendous pressure on parents, disrupted learning and social development for students, and mental health challenges for all, but most especially teens and young adults. As a spiritual community, we’ve worked hard to help one another weather this challenging time together.”

These rabbis are pulling out their whole tool kits to support their congregants through these feelings — holding urban spiritual retreats, writing weekly letters to congregants, holding choir practice over Zoom. For Flash, it starts with just letting people name their suffering and providing an ear for them. 

“It has been a very challenging year for people, and recognizing that and honoring it (in my opinion) helps people realize they are not the only ones experiencing a challenging time,” said Flash. “That sense of community is what helps us make it through.”

In Hebrew, the 10 days that mark the holy days around Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are actually known as “yamim noraim,” which Feiguin says roughly translates to “the terrible days.” 

“Why are they terrible days?” said Feiguin. “Because we need to evaluate and repent and reset and renew. We need to make decisions. This is a period where we remember. We try to take in our hands the important decisions of our own lives. This is a time of reflection.”

The purpose of that reflection, Feiguin says, naturally lends itself to hope, because it forces us to consider the changes we want to see in the future. This is particularly relevant as the U.S. faces not only the COVID-19 pandemic, says Feiguin, but also what he calls the “moral pandemic” of racism in America. 

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“I wasn’t aware to what extent, not just the police brutality, but that racism and discrimination was so deeply rooted in this society. This is a moral pandemic we have to change. It’s also our responsibility as human beings to make this change, to fix this,” said Feiguin. 

This Rosh Hashana, Feiguin urges everyone to “stop running,” face the challenges, and ask, “What now?” 

“What are the changes we need to welcome because there’s no other choice?” he said. “And what other things do we need to preserve in spite of the fact that we have these difficulties and challenges?”

Advice from local rabbis for keeping hope through the High Holy Days:  

“If you stay at home, even if you are not comfortable going to your congregation, don’t stay apart. Keep close to the people, the community. We need to face this together. We are social beings and love and kindness always help. We need to be together. It is good for our healing process. I do believe that it is good for everyone, just being together, just looking at faces, even if it’s not in person. … In our tradition, many times we had to adapt to what history put in front of us, [but] we are fragile. We are vulnerable. We are not so omnipotent as sometimes we imagine.”

— Rabbi Darío Feiguin, Congregation Kol Shalom, Bainbridge Island

“We need to realize we have faced challenges before and we will come through this one as well. We need patience and we must trust the science as we move through this. … Online services are not any less holy or powerful. They in fact can provide us an opportunity to interact with our liturgy and our tradition in new ways. While we would all, of course, love to be together, the value of protecting our health must take precedence.” 

— Rabbi Allison Flash, Kol HaNeshamah, West Seattle

“The High Holy Days usually help remind us of the fragility of life, but this year, thanks to COVID-19, we barely need a reminder of that! If ever there was a time to ground oneself in a spiritual practice, a set of values and traditions, and a tightly woven tapestry of community, this is it.” 

— Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, Kavana Cooperative, Seattle