From football fields to parking lots, Hill Havurah in Washington looked everywhere for an outdoor space with enough room for socially distanced High Holiday services.
“And we tried and tried and tried to figure out a way to accommodate the hundreds of people that come to our holiday services outdoors,” said Rabbi Hannah Spiro. “But at the end of the day, we just didn’t think we could make it work. So you’re having all of our services over livestream.”
And many synagogues are doing the same.
Congregations throughout Greater Washington have opted to go virtual for this year’s High Holiday services due to the pandemic. Rabbi Lizz Goldstein, of Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge, said she surveyed congregants and found the majority preferred to go virtual this year.
“I was surprised at the results, that mostly people wanted livestreamed traditional services,” Goldstein said. “To me, the idea of looking at a non-interactive video screen for two hours, that’s not enjoyable. But that’s what people wanted. So that’s what we’re doing.”
Goldstein intends to fully livestream all services in their entirety so people can feel “that we’re all in the moment together.” Aside from a few pre-recorded musical performances, the Arlington-based Kol Ami — The Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community plans to do the same. Rabbi Gilah Langner said the congregation is aware of the potential of mishaps in going live, but the congregation is willing to put up with them if it means they’re all sharing the same moment.
“We really like the intimacy and the participatory nature of having everybody right there and doing it live together. I just don’t think you can beat that,” Langner said. “Glitches — we know they will happen, but that’s the nature of our shul. We want to have that kind of atmosphere of really being together.”
Others, like Rabbi Scott Hoffman of B’nai Shalom of Olney, aren’t taking any chances. The Conservative synagogue is opting for livestreamed pre-recorded High Holiday services. And several other congregations are following suit by either partially or fully recording their High Holiday services weeks in advance to later stream online.
Hoffman said pre-recording eliminates the chance of errors. It also allows for services to be edited down to an exact time. Hoffman said congregants have told him that they’re willing to sit in shul for a two-and-a-half-hour service, but are less willing to do the same for one over Zoom. So pre-recording helps to make the whole service more time efficient and run smoother.
Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington will have a hybrid pre-recorded and livestreamed service. Rabbi Aaron Potek said the synagogue’s main service consists of a livestreamed traditional service in addition to two recorded videos. The first features activities like yoga, crafting and meditation. The second includes talks with thinkers, authors and philosophers who Potek said are “trying to unpack some of the themes of the New Year, but through a variety of different lenses.”
Potek compared the setup to a music festival where multiple programs are happening simultaneously. He said people are encouraged to switch back and forth between the livestream and the videos in order to tailor the High Holiday services to their tastes.
Langner said online services can allow for increased accessibility for some, but can also hinder others.
“For some folks with disabilities, for example, this would make attending services much more possible. And that’s wonderful,” Langner said. “For people who don’t use electronics on Shabbat, it is a real difficult thing this year.”
A positive of specifically pre-recording is the increased participation from congregants, according to Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen of the Bethesda-based Beth Chai Jewish Humanist Congregation of Greater Washington. She said many portions of their service will be recorded by the congregants themselves and edited into the final product. This includes self-recorded performances by Beth Chai’s shofar blower along with a youth violinist. The plan also calls for one of their sermons to feature four congregants talking about how COVID-19 has impacted them and their families.
Spiro said Hill Havurah’s pre-recorded services will include dozens of self-recorded videos sent in by congregants. Videos of congregants in their living rooms and kitchens performing prayers, chants, poems and readings will be edited into the final product. One segment has several shofar blowers performing over Zoom and another has congregants meeting in person to read from the Torah. For the project, Spiro learned how to edit video. She said the entire collaborative project has left an impression on her.
“When I was looking at the videos that people had sent I got really emotional and I started to cry just because I feel like it requires a whole extra level to make,” Spiro said. “It’s one thing to be asked to step onto the bimah and say something. People do that every year and it’s lovely. But this year, you had to really put yourself out there and make this recording and send it in and trust that it’s going to be part of a whole that makes sense, and people did it and I just thought it was really, really sweet.”
With pros, there are also cons. While going virtual makes the services more accessible to many, Hoffman said something is lost when not preaching to a live audience.
“It is more of a challenge because when you look at the audience, it moves you. Every rabbi knows this, [but] we don’t say it,” Hoffman said. “If the service is well attended, you’ll be surprised how much better you do. You’d be really surprised because seeing and getting feedback from and taking energy from the audience is not something that’s easily replicated.” Potek shared similar concerns.
“I am less than enthusiastic about leading a truly musically beautiful service to an empty room,” Potek said. “And while I hope that some of that magic gets transported through the interwebs, there’s just no way that it could possibly replace singing together in person. So that is definitely the saddest part of all this.”
While going mostly virtual, some congregations plan to meet in person on the second day of Rosh Hashanah for Tashlich, the ritual casting away of sins. Goldstein said her congregation feels comfortable gathering for the ritual as it’s outdoors and attendance is typically small.
Some, like Chabad of Loudoun County, will host in-person services. Rabbi Chaim Cohen said the plan is to hold services underneath a tent open from all four sides set up on a two-acre vacant lot in Ashburn.
“Everyone lives in a virtual world today,” Cohen said. “People need human connection, typical human connection. And if there is a possibility under the sun that we can do [in-person services] in a safe and responsible way, then we’d definitely like to do that.”