With five clergy members, 20 separate services, and hundreds of families of worshippers, the High Holidays at Temple Beth Ami, in Potomac, is a lesson in planning and multitasking.
“We start planning it out at least six months in advance,” says Senior Rabbi Gary Pokras. “There are logistics. Services need to be organized and volunteers need to be lined up. It’s a really complex operation.”
Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on Sept. 29.
Since many of the services are concurrent, Pokras and the other clergy have to be exact in their choreography as they move from room to room with little time to spare.
According to Rabbi Baht Weiss, the prep work begins with the clergy sitting together and determining the themes they want to emphasize during the services and sermons.
“We put in a lot of thought and practice,” she says.
The sermons can be difficult to write and the topics sometimes change at the last minute, she says. The simplest topics often resonate the most with people.
After deciding who will lead each service, they begin their run-throughs. The clergy usually run through the High Holy days four times before Rosh Hashanah begins.
The rehearsals help them get their timing just right. It’s also a chance for congregants who are assisting at services or being called up for honors to familiarize themselves with what they need to do.
This will be Ben Pagliaro’s first year as cantorial soloist, Weiss says. So the rehearsals will help him become a member of the High Holiday team.
“It’s exhausting but it’s exciting,” says Weiss, who leads the children’s services. “[The High Holidays] are a time when the most people come and connect, so we really try.”
Temple Beth Ami offers services for toddlers, children and teenagers, a musical service and the main service.
Weiss says it is important for her synagogue to offer so many services. “Everyone’s different. Everyone connects in different ways and we want people to find their own path.”
There’s even more variety on Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown on Oct. 8.
“Yom Kippur is a long day,” Weiss says. “It’s hard to maintain stamina. Now rather than just [fasting and napping] you can watch a film or have a healing service. It imbues this day with meaning. We really want to maximize it.”