New ways to celebrate the new year

Chicago synagogues are working hard to find the best way to run High Holiday services in a pandemic.

For many Jews, the High Holidays are a time of unity. Even during a pandemic, local synagogues are working harder than ever to help Chicago Jews feel the togetherness of the new year.

"Even in a normal year, it's a lot of work to prepare for the holidays, and this year we're doing it without the playbook," said Rabbi David Wolkenfeld of Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation (ASBI) in Lakeview. "The synagogue is a counter-cyclical institution--when times are harder, people need us more. The challenge is that people need us more, but we have all these barriers to serving them and supporting one another. But that's what's fueling all this effort and creativity."

Synagogues across Chicago are working hard to provide options to their congregants. For some, the process started with reframing how they think about services. Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, Senior Rabbi of B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) in Deerfield, encourages thinking of her congregation's planned Zoom services as "digital," not "virtual."

"'Virtual' has a connotation of not being real, and there is nothing more real and raw than the experience that we're going through right now," she said. "We will, as a community, engage in this experience digitally, but it's definitely going to be real."

The clergy team of BJBE hopes to "provide an experience that is at once transcendent and intimate, that is familiar but also uses the beautiful advantages of an online medium," Rabbi Kedar said. With everyone having a front-row seat to their computer and more ways to interact--including screen-sharing during participatory elements like lighting candles--she hopes to provide a meaningful service.

Other synagogues, like Temple Har Zion in River Forest, are blending online services with in-person services with limited seating. During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there will be six services, each of which can host up to 50 people, the current state-mandated limit. Participants will sign up online, answer a series of health-related questions, and be matched with a service with space for them. On the day itself, temperatures will be taken at the door, masks will be mandatory, and congregants will be spaced out across a large sanctuary.

They are currently preparing for the High Holidays by hosting Shabbat services with fewer people--starting at 10 and working their way up. Jay Michaels, the Temple Har Zion's Vice President of Building & Administration and head of the COVID task force, is working hard to think of everything that could get in the way of meaningful participation and eliminate those barriers.

For example, during the Torah service, there will be aliyahs (Torah honors) for people physically in the sanctuary as well as people on Zoom. "For the people present, we have a large projecting screen so we will project the Zoom service on that screen. That way, when people are doing an [online] aliyah , the people in the congregation can see them," Michaels said.

For other synagogues, like ASBI, the concern arises of what can be done without using technology on holy days. In addition to hosting services with 50 people spread across a 600-person sanctuary, the congregation plans to lend out machzorim (High Holiday prayerbooks) and offer preparation sessions.

"We are going to roll out a series of educational initiatives focusing on the liturgy and prayers so people have the opportunity to study, contemplate, talk, and learn about the less-familiar liturgy in preparation for spending these days without being in shul," said Wolkenfeld. Holding these sessions on weekdays in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah works around the problem of not using technology on the actual holidays.

In the end, what matters most is creating a spiritual experience for Jews in Chicago, no matter their denomination. "It's indeed a special sort of challenge," Wolkenfeld said, "but we're really dedicated to supporting our community."

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