At Congregation Beth El, High Holiday Prepping Goes Into High Gear

Heather Garrett, Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County’s executive director. Photo courtesy Congregation Beth El

Rosh Hashanah is a little more than three weeks away ― it begins at sundown on Sept. 15. At Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, they’ve been preparing for it since last Yom Kippur ended.

That’s when the Conservative synagogue sent a survey to members asking for feedback on their most recent high holiday experience.

“We want to know what they’re looking for going forward,” said Heather Garrett, Congregation Beth El’s executive director. “We’ve learned it’s about more than just prayer. It’s about learning. It’s about being in community.”

And the high holidays are when the community comes out in force. Garrett said eight times the usual number of attendees show up to usher in the new year ― as many as 2,500 worshipers at any given time.

“It’s a hugely important happening and the enormity is not lost on me,” Garrett said. “Part of this is making sure that systems operate the way you want them to and adjusting.”

Beth El also navigates the opening of religious school around the same time as the high holidays.

The synagogue runs five services and a junior congregation. During the high holidays, the sanctuary accommodates an overflow and services are held at Bethesda United Methodist Church across Old Georgetown Road and at an outdoor state park 25 minutes away.

The outdoor service at Seneca Creek State Park is “a highlight of the various services,” Garrett said. “You get a little taste of all the services and there’s an interactive portion.”

The outdoor service came in response to members who wanted a shorter service and “something that was closer to nature,” Garrett said.

In the runup to the high holidays, the security committee, made up of volunteer industry professionals and a staff security coordinator, evaluates emergency procedures. Ushers and greeters are trained to respond along with the off-duty officers.

“We make sure there’s a lot of training and preparation and testing of our system to make sure operationally everything works,” Garrett said. “We feel pretty good about our safety and security.”

Beth El has multiple teams, some involving volunteers, operating to prepare for the high holidays. “The key is having really good teams,” Garrett said. “We have an operations team, a team coordinating programming and a communications team. And, we have our clergy team that’s focused on the service experience indoors and outdoors.”

Managing ticket distribution or registration for services is a challenge, Garrett said. “It’s been complicated and it’s been not so complicated. What we’ve tried to do is make it as easy as possible.

“Instead of a ticket for every person for every service, one ticket per household will indicate where and when the services are and what they signed up for.”

Now, in August, preparations are in high gear. “We’re making sure that the people who registered get their seats that they requested, she said.

“Some things go awry, of course, but one of the things that I am so impressed by is just the ability to maintain focus. If a blip comes up, we take care of it.

“We plan for a lot of things, whether it’s weather or making sure we have the crossing guards for traffic. We make sure we have plenty of staff for any maintenance concerns, things like that.”

Bad weather can bring an outdoor service indoors, at which time organizers have to move quickly. “It’s a big thing, but we do prepare for it.”

Rabbis, cantors and adjunct clergy prepare for everything, from sermons to Lunch and Learns. “It’s definitely a lot of hard work on the clergy part, and they still have to be available for life cycle events and all else. They work very hard,” Garrett said, adding,“We’re always looking out for how we can do better and how we can respond to our community.” ■

Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.

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