How Are Orthodox Jews Observing the High Holidays During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

As the coronavirus continues to make its presence felt, Jewish faith communities across the U.S. are faced with the problem of how to celebrate the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are generally times of greater synagogue attendance, and still protect those who choose to observe the holy days.

For the Jewish people, the High Holidays are a time of penitence. The period begins on September 18 with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The day is often heralded by the blowing of a horn called the shofar, historically created out of the horn of a kosher animal such as a ram.

Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is expected to be celebrated on September 28. Considered by many Jewish people to be the holiest day of the year, absolutely no work is to be done on Yom Kippur. Participants are prohibiting from eating, washing, wearing leather shoes, wearing perfume or lotion and engaging in sexual activity.

While the High Holidays are often celebrated with communal services, COVID-19 has made plans for this year's observations quite different.

"It has changed life for the faith community," Executive Vice-President of the Orthodox Union Rabbi Moshe Hauer told Newsweek. The Orthodox Union serves as an umbrella organization for 400 synagogues nationwide.

In accordance with protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Orthodox Union has produced guidance for the High Holidays. Limiting the number of congregants in synagogues is recommended, as is the wearing of masks and social distancing.

Hauer said the way the Jewish faith community has continued to engage with each other during the coronavirus pandemic has been "nothing short of inspiring."

"Congregations and individuals have continued," Hauer said. "They've pivoted to different models of communal service." That includes coordinated modes of studying and praying together over a social conferencing platform like Zoom.

"Now at this stage in many places, in most places, synagogues are functioning on some level according to state guidelines," Hauer added. "Whether it's indoors or outdoors with reduced occupancy, masking, social distancing, they're back. They're back."

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Orthodox Jews in the U.S. will be taking special precautions against COVID-19 during this year's High Holiday season. iStock/Getty

Rabbi Benny Berlin began his leadership role at the BACH Jewish Center in Long Beach, New York in June when state guidelines ordered houses of worship to be closed.

"There's nothing like taking over as a rabbi during a pandemic," Berlin told Newsweek.

Services for this year's High Holidays will look "different than it has in the past," Berlin said. At the BACH Jewish Center, two separate services will be held at the same time in tents while observing social distancing. Some elderly congregants will be seated more than 6 feet apart. The shofar is also expected to be blown outside.

COVID-19 could make this year's services particularly bittersweet for those in attendance.

"You have to recognize that for many, this is the first time they're returning to synagogue," Berlin said. "There are people who lost family members during COVID and it might be emotionally heightened for them and we have to be sympathetic and empathetic to their situation and the feelings that they may be experiencing."

Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Hamptons Synagogue has High Holiday plans for not only his own congregation, but Orthodox Jews across the country. Besides the in-person services, Schneier's synagogue will also be offering prerecorded services both online and on television via the Jewish Broadcast Service.

"It's going to be a service where you can literally sit in your living room or be in your living room, create your own sacred space, and you'll be able to worship with us. It's the service in its entirety. I believe it's unprecedented in Jewish history to have this kind of experience," Rabbi Schneier told Newsweek, noting that over 63 million households have access to the JBS.

Because of the behavioral constrictions that Orthodox Judaism requires to be observed, some members of Jewish faith communities will presetting their televisions to view the proceedings.

Schneier said that putting the services together was a "Herculean effort," taking more two months to put together.

"We're an Orthodox synagogue with all the constraints that you can imagine where we cannot record, cannot broadcast, cannot telecast live," Schneier said. "And we've been able to check all the boxes to make sure that [with] Orthodox law, we are complying, we are doing everything that we should do."

Regardless of the measures taken by faith communities to ensure their congregants can participate in High Holiday services, Rabbi Hauer said what matters most is the spirit behind the observances.

"One of the things which is critical for us is that we not get lost in the technicalities of how we're going to do everything and forget that prayer is the heart and soul," Hauer said. "After we dot all the 'i's' and figure out where people are going to sit, in the end we have to be able to produce a meaningful and substantive service."

Correction 4:02 p.m. EST 09/16/2020: This story originally stated the number of households with access to the Jewish Broadcast Service as 63,000. That number was incorrect. Jewish Broadcast Service is available in 63 million households. Newsweek regrets the error.