From 'Shofar In The Car' To Outdoor Services, Jewish High Holy Days Look Different In 2020

Sep 18, 2020

People of faith continue to find new ways to worship during the COVID-19 pandemic, from outdoor, socially distant gatherings to online services and sermons on CD. Many in Cincinnati's Jewish community will mark the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur differently this year.

"We know one thing," says Shep Englander, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, "they will not look anything like they've looked ever before."

Also known as the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Jewish New Year and the holiest day of the year, respectively. This year, Rosh Hashanah will be marked from sunset Sept. 18 through nightfall Sept. 20 and Yom Kippur from sunset Sept. 27 through nightfall Sept. 28. Both are a time for reflecting on the past year and making amends.

"For those whose traditions and embrace of Judaism enables them to do the services online, that will be the primary mode," Englander says. "For people who are more religious and don't use electronics on the High Holidays, they will be having to figure out how to do it as safely as they can. The Orthodox congregations will be having a combination of outdoor and indoor services. The indoor ones will be very spread out, with masks."

He says some non-Orthodox congregations will offer limited in-person indoor and outdoor opportunities, but will be mostly celebrated online. At least one congregation is hosting a "Shofar in the Car" drive through event on the Saturday during Rosh Hashanah so people can safely hear the shofar being sounded. It's considered a commandment, or mitzvah, to be present when the shofar (a musical instrument made from a ram's horn) is blown.

'It Does Have Some Upsides'

Since the pandemic began, people of faith from all religions have been dealing with the challenge of making the online worship experience meaningful. What that experience looks like has been changing. In the early months, people rushed to get set up on virtual platforms and simply meet congregational and worship needs as quickly as possible. Now, they're finding ways to make the experience more polished.

"They're learning how to have production value and keep it interesting and how to use chats and break rooms and all the ways we normally try to make online participation engaging. It's no one's first choice but it does have some upsides, like people don't have to dress up, they can come in their pajamas," Englander says.

People will be missing out on the social aspects of marking the High Holidays, which Englander describes as a time when nearly all congregation members get to see each other and catch up on the past year's events.

Pandemic Increasing Participation

Earlier this year, a survey of Greater Cincinnati's Jewish community indicated the population is stable. It also found a slight increase in the Jewish population. Now, Englander says, local Jewish congregations are seeing an increase in participation during the pandemic.

"I think part of it is because you can do it in your pajamas with a glass of wine (that's been blessed during the service), and part of it is because there's less competition for activities - you can't go to the movies or the basketball game. And part of it is because people that belong to a congregation belong because they want to be connected to other people who have similar traditions and experiences and values, and right now this is their only option."

While higher numbers are good, Englander says, he acknowledges the reason why is not anyone's preference.