There’s no denying that this year’s High Holiday season will look vastly different from past years. But different isn’t necessarily a negative, says Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Pikesville’s Beth El Congregation.

“It’s interesting, as we have gone into this online world, there are people that like taking part in services from home,” says Rabbi Schwartz. “Congregants are able to roll right out of bed, pour themselves a cup of coffee, skip the getting dressed up part, open their laptops and they are at synagogue. There is something to be said about that, too, at least sometimes.”

Rabbi Schwartz and the rest of the Beth El team hopes that enjoyment for online services continues through the holiday season.

“This has generated a lot of energy and creative on our end,” the rabbi says. “When you are doing what you always do, you don’t always have to think about it. But doing something totally different is challenging and an opportunity reimagine and rethink how we do things during the holidays.”

Beth El will launch its “Pathways to Teshuvah: High Holy Day Campaign” series on Sept. 3 with a keynote event called “Facing Hate, Embracing Others.” The virtual gathering, which will take place at 7:30 p.m., is a panel discussion about the increasing hate and bigotry facing minority groups living in the United States.

Jmore spoke with Rabbi Schwartz ahead of the event to find out more about the congregation’s virtual High Holiday campaign. 

Jmore: How did you come up with “Pathways to Teshuvah”?

Rabbi Schwartz: We wanted to create more programing for the congregants to have additional opportunities to engage during the holiday season.

These programs are supplemental opportunities for members of the congregation who feel they want more connection during this time of year than during a regular holiday season, when they know they will be spending many hours inside the building.

Our creative and energetic team participated in a series of brainstorming sessions to determine what thread would tie everything together. We kept coming back to the theme of pathways or journeys. We ended up settling on pathways and to help delineate that, came up with three paths of teshuvah — inward, outward and upward.

How are you hoping to make this a meaningful holiday season for congregants? 

There is no question that’s a significant challenge. Part of what we are doing is creating virtual spaces where more intimate gathering and conversations can take place. We are hoping through the Pathways program, smaller discussions will happen.

In terms of the holidays themselves, it’s an interesting creative exercise. We are pre-recording some parts of the service like a coffee chat between Rabbi Dana Saroken and myself about the Torah portions we are reading, as well as some behind-the-scenes footage. It’s a piece people don’t normally get during the holidays, but we hope they will enjoy it and find meaning in it as well.

Why is the keynote event focused on hate and embracing others?

We wanted to have some programing focused on the broader idea of communal teshuvah especially during a time when the country feels unsettled, when there are a lot of harsh words spoken and when there is a strong sense that things aren’t how they should be.

The concept of communal teshuvah reflects the personal experience of the High Holidays where we come as individuals to the synagogue and think about how this may not have been our best year or on how we shouldn’t have said some of the things we said.

This kickoff program is about that national sense of the need for transformation.   

What can Jews do to combat some of this hate and unrest?

This first program is an example of what it means when communities come together. The panel will be made up of representatives from the LGBTQ community, the Muslim community, the Black community and the Jewish community.

Part of what we can do is come together as different faiths and ethnicities and share a common dialogue. Another piece is recognizing that the opposite of the old saying ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ is true — a sinking tide will lower all boats. We can’t make the mistake of thinking when there is intolerance toward communities like the LGBTQ, Muslim or Black communities that our Jewish community won’t be affected. History has shown us people who are intolerant of different faiths and have hateful, prejudice-type behaviors will eventually target those behaviors toward the Jewish community as well.

It behooves us to remember the old line from the Megillah when Mordechai reminds Esther that just because she lives in the palace doesn’t mean she’s safe from the suffering outside the palace walls. It doesn’t work that way. We are all in it together.

What would you say to congregants who feel down this holiday season?

This is a year everyone is working together as hard as we can to make it the best possible holiday season. We all need to be understanding and sensitive to the fact this will be a particularly difficult year for many of us. It will be a year where families who traditionally gather in multi-generational ways may not be able to.

I think it’s a good thing to acknowledge that as the holidays unfold. And this year, the saying l’shana haba’ah b’yerushalayim [next year in Jerusalem], which symbolizes being in a better place next year, will have additional layers of meaning.

Any other advice for those trying to have a meaningful holiday season?

We are encouraging people to treat these days like holy days. Instead of sitting in front of a computer screen dressed in old cut-off jeans and a tie-dye shirt, considering dressing up. Put a tallis and kippah on if that is part of your practice.

We also encourage you to participate in the service. We are handing out prayer books, which has been a nice initiative. It’s important to also remember, there can be a nice sense of intimacy that can be achieved with a properly done virtual service, and we are encouraging congregants to embrace that as fully as they can.

We are facing a lot of difficulties right now and hope the holidays give people some hope and relief from those day-to-day struggles.   

For information about “Pathways to Teshuvah,” visit https://www.bethelbalto.com/pathways.

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