Do High Holiday Innovations Signal a More Inclusive 5781?

I have read many articles in the past few months, written by people with disabilities, noting that Covid-19 has given people without disabilities a very small taste of what their lives are like—from people with mobility issues regularly not being able to attend in person meetings or getting around the office easily, to deaf people feeling left out of meetings due to lack of interpreters.  They all end by hoping the world will just be bit more understanding and accommodating for everyone if and when we return to work.

My hope and prayer is that the Jewish World will also continue to be more inclusive and accommodating.  We are off to a good start!  Countless synagogues of all denominations and entire Jewish communities have worked hard to meet the needs of congregants unable to attend in person services, life cycle events or classes.

In this blog, I have documented a few, from community wide shofar blowing on the streets of New York and LA, to virtual classes.   There were countless Shabbat Shuva drashes, as well as rich online pre-holiday programming for people of all ages.

I have been particularly struck by the number of pre-holiday Yizkor services offered.   I attended one this past Thursday offered by Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun.  And Chabad held a Yizkor service at 9 am Sunday (Erev Yom Kippur), advertising, “Join thousands as we remember our loved one…”   In the KJ Yizkor, Rabbi Chaim Steinmatz noted that Yizkor is traditionally recited when the community gathers, and that, this year, many in the community were gathering virtually.

All the years I have been attending synagogue, I have noticed people rushing to shuls of all denominations to “say Yizkor”—even if they had to then turn around and go back to work.  Or they had to get to shul at great cost.   It is not easy for everyone to get to shul—due to age, disability, financial means and more.  Offering Yizkor virtually, especially before the holiday when technology use isn’t an issue for the more observant, is brilliant—and inclusive.

There are obvious halachic (Jewish law) challenges.  Though we are seeing innovation and creativity in both the Conservative and the Orthodox worlds.  There is an old say: “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way.”  This may not be true in all cases—but it means there is room for more “play” within the system. 

Some Conservative rabbis were not comfortable using Zoom on Shabbat and holidays. They were a bit more comfortable when they learned they can leave Zoom “on” for the whole service without touching the controls. Then, Rosh Hashanah came along.  Zoom apparently ends a meeting automatically after 24 hours of being on.  The two-day holiday of Rosh Hashanah would have been problematic—until a clever Conservative rabbi working on this issue contacted a colleague in California who had a congregant who was a higher up at Zoom.  Lo and behold—they found a way to allow Zoom to stay on for 48 hours!

And finally, a playful accommodation.  A clever Jew in Melbourne, Australia found a way to bring the kaparah ritual to Australian Jews on lockdown—he rented a plane with chickens aboard and had the pilot fly “kaparah patterns” over Melbourne!

I pray that 5781 is a year of continuing to be creative and therefore even more inclusive!  

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