Usually, we begin to think about Rosh Hashanah a month in advance. When the Hebrew month of Elul starts, we begin taking stock, looking back on our year, examining our actions and interpersonal relationships, and planning for the year to come. In a year like this one, we could use the extra three weeks that the rest of the Hebrew month of Av has to offer. This year, in addition to examining our actions, we need to figure out what Rosh Hashanah will even look like.
Most years, synagogue members simply show up on Rosh Hashanah and go to their assigned seats. Depending on the type of synagogue, they sit and pray for a few or many hours on Rosh Hashanah day, Yom Kippur evening and on Yom Kippur. This year, we are facing a reality that almost no one has faced thus far in life–there may not even be in person services. And if services do take place, they may look very different than in previous years.
There are concerns about social distancing, praying indoors at all, and the very really real issue that shofar blowing and singing emit droplets to the air. There are concerns about sharing books and kipas and tallises. I am sure there are even more concerns!
Here are some proposals I have come across so far which make it possible to have the prayer and shofar experience. The ones involving use of technology are more difficult for individuals and movements who don’t permit electricity on Shabbat and holidays:
-outdoor services (this may be a problem in certain parts of the country due to unpredictable weather on September 18th, or for those in urban environments where there simply is no outdoor option)
-much shorter services and/or shifts: pray the first part of the service on your own at home, no singing, no sermon (or very very short sermon)
-have the shofar blower behind a glass or with a cloth over the shofar
-Zoom services—live or pre-recorded.
Just as schools and school districts across the country are preparing various scenarios, including in person schooling, blended schooling and totally virtual schooling, we too should prepare for all sorts of High Holiday options. While some shuls have already made a final decision, these suggestions can help everyone:
-Purchase a mahzor. It is always good to have a Rosh Hashanah prayer book or several at home. They can easily be ordered online.
-Purchase a shofar and watch some YouTube videos. One very useful one, the 16 minute, “Tips for Blowing Shofar,” has already had 34m 748 views. THIS is the big mitzvah of the holidays. The obligation is upon each person to hear the 100 blasts of the shofar. What better way to fulfill the mitzvah than by blowing it yourself, for your family?
-Think of ways to meaningfully involve and engage the children. This is a wonderful challenge, and there are so man right answers. There are so many wonderful sights, sounds and smells of the holiday, and kids love to participate.
-This can involve purchasing pretend shofars and Jewish children’s books, or downloading resources and videos, like the many on Bim Bam’s site.
-You can go apple picking to prepare for the apples and honey ritual. You can bake round challahs (with raisins inside!) or other sweet treats—for a sweet year.
-You can research and purchase food items for the special “simanim” ritual. Kids will love this! It is essentially a short ceremony on Rosh Hashanah evening, between Kiddush and hamotzi, and dinner, where any number of symbolic foods are eaten, including pomegranates, dates, beets, carrots, beets and more. Each item has a Hebrew word and a special play on words offers a wish for the upcoming year.
-plan a family tashlich trip to a nearby lake or river, where each family member can cast bread crumbs, symbolically casting away our sins.
This Rosh Hashanah certainly may look different from past Rosh Hashanah services. No doubt there are very real challenges to public (especially indoor) worship. But that doesn’t have to mean the holiday will be a bust. Pick some apples, learn to play shofar, make some round challahs, get those stories ready and have a great holiday! You can even order some new clothes online to make the holiday really special!