On the eve of Rosh Hashana Friday evening, Stephanie Seiler was ready. She had made her mother’s noodle kugel and raisin challah, there was a strong internet connection and plenty of space.
But no tears.
Last April, at Passover — the first holiday that fell during the coronavirus pandemic — Seiler hosted a Seder with her family in Brier and her mother in New York via Zoom. When it was over, she went to her bedroom, called her mother back and cried.
“To me, a lot of the observance is being with family and friends,” Seiler said. “It’s being with people and having that shared experience of Jews all over the world doing the same thing.
“Who would have thought back in April that the high holidays would roll around and we would still be in this same situation?”
The pandemic has demanded small groups and social distancing — the antithesis of the large family, friend and religious gatherings that mark Rosh Hashana, the two-day Jewish New Year — and Yom Kippur.
And yet, these ancient religious holidays are being preserved with the help of technology. Zoom. Prerecorded services available on YouTube.
Those aren’t options for everyone, though. Orthodox Jews are prohibited from using electricity during the Sabbath, and so synagogues have found other solutions, meeting outdoors or making technological exceptions in the name of community.
Those changes have had a spiritual impact, because the themes of the high holidays — the somber repenting for sins, atonement and looking toward a new year — are usually done within, and with the support of, a large community.
“Every single Jewish organization has been scrambling to figure out how to do this,” said Lisa Narodick Colton, who has been helping grantees of the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund as they redesign events for the high holidays.
“Some synagogues are just setting up a camera, and some are reconceiving the whole thing.”
At Temple de Hirsch Sinai, Rabbi Daniel Weiner hired a production company to prerecord Saturday’s services in August. Doing so kept his Reform congregation safe, he said, but it also prevented technical glitches, security breaches and allowed for some special touches: Multiple camera angles including close-ups of the Torah. Contemplative visuals. Clear sound.
“We would love for people to be together,” Weiner said. “But people are also appreciating the unexpected blessings of the online experience.”
The 1,900 members on two campuses — Seattle and Bellevue — have been participating in online services for the past six months, he said. “So most people have become accustomed to this mode.”
One new approach was to bring the traditional blowing of the shofar — a cleaned-out ram’s horn that marks the start of the holiday — outside.
Kavana, an independent Jewish community in Seattle, organized a “Shofar in the Park” event at six area parks, where attendees could witness the traditional blowing of the shofar — whose sound marks the start of the holiday and the presence of God. They also participated in Tashlich — the symbolic casting away of sins — by throwing breadcrumbs into nearby water.
“It’s a great equalizer for people unable to attend services or who felt the loss of not having a community,'” Colton said.
The Orthodox congregation Ezra Bessaroth in South Seattle on Saturday held services outside in its courtyard, in tents. But attendance was limited and members had to make reservations to get in.
“It was a little bit rainy but we managed very well,” said Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, adding that services during the week are held via Zoom. (“We get a bigger crowd from all over,” he said. “I have practically created a virtual synagogue.”)
And yet, the pandemic has forced some spiritual adjustments. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur — also known as the Day of Atonement, and the holiest day of the year in Judaism — are traditionally celebrated surrounded and supported by fellow worshippers. Losing that is painful. People miss that connection.
“It is definitely important to be together when possible,” Benzaquen said. “But when it’s dangerous, you shouldn’t do it. Pray by yourself and direct your thoughts to God on your own.”
Being isolated in your spiritual practice isn’t such a bad thing, though, said Weiner, at Temple de Hirsch Sinai.
“There is so much in this pandemic that is not ideal,” he said. “But one of the key elements of this period is individual reflection and how we’re going to be individually better in the coming year.
“You’re supported in a whole group of people, but sometimes being in that larger group, you don’t delve as deeply. “
Colton agreed: “Just by having your tush in a seat does not necessarily mean you have done that hard work. This way, you can more sincerely, authentically and acutely wrestle with that, and figure out what kind of process you need to do that.”
That may be alone time, she said. Meditation. Being out in nature, or reconnecting with people you’ve not been in touch with.
“This year, uniquely, we have permission to think creatively about how we do that,” Colton said. “It’s bringing a lot more intentionality to the theme of these holidays.”
For Seiler, it’s almost like celebrating Passover in addition to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
“We’ve got the plague, fires, we’ve got the floods down in the South,” she said, recalling a friend’s joke. “And we’ve got a pharaoh in charge.
“I don’t have everyone where I like them to be,” she said. “But the people who matter most to me will still have a connection. And that’s the best I can do this year.”