In late June, a group of Bolton Street Synagogue congregants gathered on a Zoom call for a conversation about the High Holy Days. At the time, we still didn’t know if our services would be held entirely online or socially distant in-person.
In any case, our community recognized that the High Holy Days this year would be anything but normal.
There were tears, sadness and mourning during that conversation, for we all recognized that we wouldn’t be able to see old friends, sit in familiar seats and be together, hundreds of us in our beautiful sanctuary.
How could we welcome a New Year during a pandemic? How could we make this year’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur truly a meaningful season?
As every synagogue has pivoted to online services, we’ve each needed to answer these fundamental questions. Each congregation has come up with different answers depending on their community’s particular needs and culture.
For Bolton Street Synagogue, we realized quite early on from our many conversations with congregants that our community wanted and needed to see one another’s faces. As a smaller congregation, we had the ability to all be on Zoom together. This means that we can all worship together, see one another and have different members of the community participate live from the comfort and safety of their homes.
We also decided that although we couldn’t be in physical proximity with one another, we could celebrate the same ritual moments together. Our Membership Engagement Committee decided to create High Holy Day Engagement Bags filled with gifts for the holidays, such as: prayer books, apples and honey, a yahrzeit candle, bird seed and instructions for Tashlich, even a toy shofar that our kids (and kids at heart) could blow during the shofar service.
These gifts were chosen specifically to provide opportunities for all of us to gather online in community and celebrate the most important rituals together at the same time.
We also recognized quite early that a Zoom service for the holidays would be quite different from one in our sanctuary. We won’t be able to hold a three-hour service, and we won’t be able to sing every song or read every prayer.
However, one of the blessings of the COVID-19 pandemic is the ability to think outside the box and focus on what truly is the heart of each service. Our mantra became, “What matters most to our congregation and what will move them during these High Holy Days?”
It was those prayers and sacred moments that became the foundation of each of our services.
In addition, we also had the ability to create new rituals for our community such as a Rosh Hashanah Seder, asking a congregant to share a short reflection during each service block, and to light candles together for yizkor, the evening services, and Havdalah. We hope that these new rituals will provide us with spiritual nourishment for years to come.
Finally, most synagogues in America use the High Holy Days as a fundraising opportunity. Some charge for tickets while others have a High Holy Day Appeal. Bolton Street Synagogue’s leadership decided that, “Doors Wide Open,” our tagline, should be at the forefront of our holiday planning.
That means that we won’t charge for tickets in the same way as in the past. We are inviting friends, neighbors, family members and guests to join us our services. We ask for a voluntary donation for we realize that this is a moment of hardship for so many.
We need spiritual community more than ever, and that means that our doors should be wide open for all in our broader Jewish community.
Our congregation has come a long way since that June conversation. There might still be tears and a little sadness when we gather on Zoom for Erev Rosh Hashanah, but as one of our members reminded us, “This is not the first time our people weren’t able to gather together for the holidays.”
This year will be different, but we will still have the true joy of seeing one another’s faces, congregants in Baltimore and throughout Maryland, and including friends as far away as Germany, Seattle and New Hampshire. Through our rituals old and new, through our connection to each other, we will be able to bring a little bit of joy and sweetness to the New Year 5781.
Rabbi Andy Gordon is the spiritual leader of Bolton Street Synagogue.