By Shira Hanau and Eric Schucht
A few days before Rosh Hashanah, members of Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington will begin receiving packages containing apples and honey, plus information about the High Holidays, which begin at sundown on Sept. 18. In keeping with the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, the packages will include a machzor, or High Holiday prayer book, so that congregants can follow Zoom services at home or pray on their own.
“I think that there’s a lot of mourning going on right now of what people are lacking and what people are going to miss during the holiday,” said Rabbi Michael Werbow. “They’re so used to seeing people that they haven’t seen all year [at holiday time], and hearing familiar melodies. And there’s a fear of not hearing them. I think it’s been a difficult time for a lot of people.”
Tifereth Israel’s packages are among many that will start to land soon on the front steps of Jewish homes across the country, meant to make a High Holiday season spent at home a little less lonely and a little more spiritually fulfilling.
The High Holiday boxes reflect a dawning awareness that with most synagogues closed or at least curtailed, homes are now the center of the Jewish experience. Just as people the world over have begun baking sourdough bread during the pandemic, many Jews have started baking their own challah. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic extends into the second half of its first year, synagogues and other Jewish organizations are taking new steps to make home practice easier to access.
To some, the shift in focus from synagogues to homes as the center of Jewish life is a healthy recalibration for a culture in which synagogues had become too central.
“We’ve sharply differentiated home from synagogue … and we’ve put all our energy into the synagogue,” said Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a professor at Hebrew Union College who researches synagogues, liturgy and ritual. “Instead of two separate entities, we now have the opportunity to share from one home to another.”
Hoffman himself has found that the pandemic has changed the way he observes Shabbat. When the pandemic first started, he started singing Shabbat songs on Friday afternoon with his children and grandchildren over Zoom. Eventually the gatherings became a weekly ritual and incorporated songs, candle lighting and a full Shabbat dinner conducted over Zoom.
“We worry about synagogues … but at the same time we have a strong home ceremony that keeps us going and it’s partially the secret of our success,” Hoffman said. “It’s kind of an exciting moment in time when we’re experimenting with open scripted rituals in our homes that could become anything.”
Many clergy are traversing uncharted territory, according to Vanessa Ochs, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Virginia. She said this year’s Passover had effectively been a “Jewish boot camp,” as people who might normally attend a family or communal seder had to figure out how to make one themselves, and now the lessons are being applied to the High Holidays.
“How do you do Rosh Hashanah on your own? Our community hasn’t invented that yet,” she said.
That invention is underway. A website that sells Passover haggadot — and allows users to compile resources to create their own — has launched [email protected], which invites users to “download a simple Rosh Hashanah Seder & Yom Kippur Guidebook or mix & match to create your own holiday gathering.”
Rabbi Yael Buechler, a school rabbi and founder of Midrash Manicures, a company that sells Jewish-themed manicure kits, said she noticed Rosh Hashanah cards becoming less popular over the years but thought this year would be the perfect opportunity to bring them back. She collaborated with a New Yorker cartoonist to create Rosh Hashanah cards that feature an apple and honey separated by a Zoom screen.
“This is a really unique opportunity for young people to use cards — hand-written notes are really powerful — to reach out to family and friends they haven’t seen for months,” Beuchler said.
Support is also coming from the synagogues that congregants this year cannot enter. In addition to making sure they have easy-to-access Zoom setups and prayer books to follow along with at home, many congregations are distributing supplies aimed at enriching the holiday experience.
Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston is working with Atiq: Jewish Maker Institute to create wall art to hang up during livestream services. Congregants can pick up materials and then follow along in construction through a virtual workshop.
“The idea being that it would be something that people hang in the backdrop of wherever they are setting up their sacred space for the High Holidays and something to tie us together,” said Rabbi Jessie Wainer. “Since we can’t all be sitting in the sanctuary together this year, we need other visual cues to tie us all together. And so the wall-hanging is what we’re doing this year.”
The kit will also include Shabbat candlesticks, a yahrzeit candle, honey sticks, a challah recipe and bags for people to put food donations for a food drive. Wainer said they’re also working on another kit for young families. These will include projects for the holidays like a paper shofar-making kit, s’mores materials to be used in the sukkah and egg shakers and scarves for services.
At Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, congregants will be able to pick up prayer books before Rosh Hashanah and return them after the holidays, according to Executive Director Adam Wallach. Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church is preparing kits that will include a High Holiday handbook, dried apple chips, honey and a yahrzeit candle among other things, according to the synagogue’s director of membership engagement, Cookie Mandell.
At Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, N.H., Rabbi Robin Nafshi is planning to send congregants a package of materials for tashlich, the ritual in which Jews throw bread crumbs into water to symbolize the casting away of sins.
With the day when tashlich would be performed falling on an early-fall Sunday this year, Nafshi was concerned about trying to assemble the congregation with proper social distancing at potentially crowded local bodies of water. So congregants at the Reform synagogue will get packets of bird seed in their holiday boxes, which volunteers will hand deliver throughout the region. (The synagogue has used bird seed in place of the traditional bread, which can be harmful to birds and fish, for years.)
“Like everyone, we’re trying to figure out this online world where we’re trying to find ways to make this more personal,” said Nafshi. She said she hopes the packages will “remind them that our clergy and board and staff are thinking of them.”
At Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, families will get a box before Rosh Hashanah that will include chocolate bars for the kids and conversation starters to fuel meaningful conversation during holiday meals.
Families will also get a glass jar filled with premixed dry ingredients for a honey or apple cake. The idea is for families to bake together for the holiday, then use the container to keep notes marking things to be grateful for or good deeds to bring the lessons of Rosh Hashanah into the rest of the year.
Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold plans to use the box model in the synagogue’s religious school this year, creating kits for each of the school’s four- or five-week-long units.
“It’s opening up a world of possibility that brings us into the children’s homes in ways that I think just weren’t as easy to do before,” she said.