High Holy Days during COVID-19 mean financial, spiritual challenges for synagogues

For synagogues, COVID-19 brings spiritual, technological and financial challenges for synagogues during the High Holy Days.

(RNS) — According to the central High Holy Day prayer “Unesanneh Tokef,” the names of those who will live and die and who will become wealthy and impoverished are written in heaven on Rosh Hashana and sealed on Yom Kippur.

In this year of uncertainty and hardship, those existential and financial questions apply to both synagogues and individuals, Jewish leaders say.

Most years, the 10-day span between Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year’s Day and Yom Kippur (judgment day) does double duty. It is the holiest span of the Jewish calendar and the period during which many synagogues often receive a significant portion of their donations, membership renewals and other income, including tickets for High Holy Day services.

This year, some synagogues may struggle.

“Are there congregations who will be tipped over the edge because of COVID? I think there will be. It would be absurd to think otherwise,” Amy Asin, the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president of strengthening congregations, told Religion News Service. The Reform movement is larger than the other Jewish denominations combined, per Pew Research Center data.

For congregations to endure, leaders must think transformationally during and after these High Holy Days — which begin and end at night on Sept. 18-20 and 27-28 this year — Asin said.

Business as usual won’t work, she said.

“There are congregations that were hesitating to make some changes. They were starting to think about them, but they needed a little bit of a push,” she said. “This has given them the push to do things that are really different.”

A Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh High Holy Days ticket from 1973 in Portland, Maine. Photo courtesy of Maine Memory Network

Reform Jews report in movement surveys feeling more connected to and likelier to recommend and remain members of their congregations than pre-pandemic. For more than five years, Reform congregations have increasingly streamed services online throughout the year, and more and more have waived High Holy Day ticket fees for non-members.

That doesn’t mean Reform congregations, very few of which will hold in-person High Holy Day services this year, are in the clear. Many withhold sending High Holy Day tickets until they know membership checks are in the mail, typically, and many send letters or appeals to congregants this time of year.

Some are discounting tickets — which normally cost $200 on the high end — this year. But congregations don’t know if congregants will pay for digital High Holy Day pews.

At Temple Sinai (Reform) in Reno, Rabbi Sara Zober doesn’t guess how online High Holy Day attendance will compare to the 200 to 300 who tend to come in person. Recent Friday night services online have drawn about 100 people, though, when 12 people might have come pre-pandemic.

Nevada is among the hardest-hit states, but the synagogue, whose High Holy Day donations are a smaller portion of the budget than is the case for other congregations, is doing alright.

“We’re nervous, but we are a young congregation that has actually grown a small bit during the pandemic,” Zober said. “Let’s hope that people are able to be generous this year, because the bills all still need to get paid even when the building is closed.”

Henry Fuchs holds a “yad,” or silver Torah pointer, to the Tokaj Torah as synagogue members follow along on Zoom, April 25, 2020. Video screenshot by Yonat Shimron

In Milwaukee, Congregation Shir Hadash (Reconstructionist), which rents space in a church, is also doing fine. The small congregation, whose sole employee is Rabbi Michal Woll, doesn’t sell High Holy Day tickets, hasn’t lost membership and didn’t take out a loan this year.   

Part of a denomination that prioritizes congregant participation and creative liturgy, the synagogue has purchased new sound equipment to improve the online experience for services.

Woll thinks the congregation will be fine.  

“It is unclear where we will land until it is over, but we don’t count on the High Holy Days to be significant to begin with,” Woll said. “Our guest list is growing, so we will definitely have visitors, who will make donations.”

Shir Tikvah Congregation (Reform) in Minneapolis also doesn’t sell High Holy Day tickets, and donations this time of year only account for about 5% of the annual budget, according to Michael Adam Latz, lead rabbi.

Latz has heard of synagogues asking congregants to make donations before getting access to a Zoom link. That’s a mistake, he says.

“Talk about a fundamental misunderstanding of where society is right now,” Latz said. “My own belief is money reflects purpose and mission and commitment.”

Latz’s synagogue typically draws 1,200 to 1,300 in-person High Holy Days worshippers. He doesn’t know how many will stream services this year but is doing his best to invite everyone he can.

His philosophy is to avoid pressing those in the “winter” of their lives for money and that people will be generous when they’re able. Two graduate students he married for free sent in a $10,000 donation out of the blue 17 years later, when they had more lucrative jobs and their twins reached bar mitzvah age, he said.

Latz compared the current moment to the wakeup call of a piercing shofar blast. Some communities will emerge stronger, while others won’t make it.

“That’s heartbreaking,” he said. “If your funding stream is all predicated in one lane, and that lane is blocked, you’re off tsuris,” he said, using the Yiddish word for “troubles.”

An Orthodox Jewish man blows the shofar after engaging in a brief prayer with a passerby, Sunday Sept. 20, 2020, in New York. A shofar is an instrument made from the horn of a ram or other kosher animal, blown on Rosh Hashana to mark the Jewish New Year and calling Jewish faithfuls to prayer. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

At Orthodox synagogues, High Holy Day tickets are very common. Prices range from $150 to $800, which may be on top of annual membership, the median of which is $1,100, said Rabbi Adir Posy, director of the Orthodox Union’s synagogue and community services department.

Synagogues accommodate those who can’t afford to pay, according to Posy, who is also associate rabbi at the Los Angeles-based Beth Jacob Congregation (Orthodox).

With payroll for rabbis and staff representing synagogues’ greatest expenses, some Orthodox synagogues have found respite in Paycheck Protection Program loans. Many are waiving ticket fees altogether this year.

“They’re saying, ‘Try and figure out if you can support us some other way, because we just want to promote access,’” Posy said.

Congregants, who generally connect dues and High Holy Days in their minds, may renege on renewing membership if they don’t need High Holy Day seats, according to Posy.

His congregation, which typically draws 1,000 on High Holy Days compared to 300 on a regular week, plans 15 socially distanced High Holy Day services compared to three typically, as congregation members don’t use technology like Zoom on holidays.

This year’s services will take place in congregants’ backyards and in parking lots. What the pandemic’s impact will be on membership renewals and donations is anyone’s guess.

“This time of year is really pivotal even if you don’t have a structure that specifically relies on seats,” Posy said. “This is a scary time, but people are trying to have a sense of hopeful, optimistic realism that we will get through this.”