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As Jewish High Holidays approach, we must reform our plans again

From Mah Tovu on Rosh Hashana morning to Seu Shearim on Yom Kippur evening, we have numerous options for worshipping in a manner that places safety first.

Fran Chalin blows a shofar to mark the end of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, at the intersection of Figueroa Street and York Boulevard in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

(RNS) — The High Holidays are quickly approaching — seemingly outpaced only by the Delta variant. After promising numbers glimmered briefly this summer, the light at the end of the long COVID-19 tunnel is now flickering. 

If vaccination rates had been higher and compliance with scientific guidance been more impressive, perhaps we might have contemplated holding somewhat regular indoor services for this year’s High Holidays. But tragically, that does not appear to be the evolving situation we find ourselves in.

From the miracle of livestreamed or prerecorded services to the beauty of al fresco bimahs and neighborhood shofar blasts, synagogues commendably and creatively responded to last year’s challenge of welcoming the new year during a pandemic. Reminiscent of Judaism’s past, congregations went outside; hinting at religion’s future, congregations went online.

Sure, many Jews long to sit once more in upholstered pews in an air-conditioned sanctuary with a carpeted bimah. But the first shofar, millennia ago, did not ring out in a room like that, and neither should we blast tekiah or shevarim or teruah or tekiah gedolah in a packed house in 5782.

As logistically and emotionally problematic as changing course at the last minute may be, we must reform our plans again.

Not to worry, Reform Jews know how to reform! Responding thoughtfully to the times is the very hallmark of our movement. This is our raison d’être, our founding principle, our heart. The thesaurus is replete with synonyms sporting our denomination’s favorite prefix: reimagine, reconfigure and rearrange, to name a few. But when it comes to in-person, at-capacity services, some uses of “re” are not in the cards this season: revert, return and resume.

As congregations from coast to coast did so artfully one year ago, we can spread out over both time and space throughout the upcoming Days of Awe. Drawing upon Reform and other branches’ innovative adaptations from 5781, meaningful celebrations can take shape this year, too:

Meet for shorter services

From Mah Tovu on Rosh Hashana morning to Seu Shearim on Yom Kippur evening, we have numerous options for worshipping in a manner that places safety first. The traditional fare can be redesigned to create a series of shorter-than-usual services. Ultimately, a service is measured not by its length but by its depth.

Meet in smaller groups

On-campus attendance can be for smaller-than-usual clusters of congregants who are vaccinated, masked and physically distant.

Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, center, with musicians and singers from Mishkan Chicago perform songs and prayers of the High Holidays while outdoors. Photo courtesy of See3 Digital Events

Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, center, with musicians and singers from Mishkan Chicago perform songs and prayers of the High Holidays while outdoors. Photo courtesy of See3 Digital Events

Meet outdoors

Inspired by sukkot in our backyards and streeteries everywhere, we can likewise assemble in the open air. After all, we sing about the tents, not the concrete edifices: “how goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwelling places, oh Israel!”

Meet on location

Taking our cue from food deliveries and drive-by birthday parties, we can hit the road, block by block, with a holiday-on-wheels. The core prayers are our delivery, and the shofar is the horn we honk.

Meet onscreen

And of course, congregating on Zoom or other digital platforms — by now second nature — is the gold standard. Surely there is a blessing for technology that enables us to protect personal and public health.

We owe a debt of gratitude to all the clergy, staff and lay leaders who are working hard to devise late-breaking solutions. They understand that we are not out of the coronavirus woods yet.

Thankfully, our theological roots are resilient. For our tree is no ordinary tree. It is etz chaim, a tree of life. And for that we can rejoice.

(Jan Zauzmer is a past president of a large Union for Reform Judaism congregation and the author of two children’s picture books: If You Go with Your Goat to Vote and Maxine’s Critters Get the Vaccine Jitters. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)