WASHINGTON — As customary, there will be celebrations and somber reflections as American Jews observe the upcoming High Holy Days — their faith’s most important period. There also will be deep disappointment, as rabbis once again cancel or limit in-person worship due to the persisting COVID-19 pandemic.
The chief culprit is the quick-spreading delta variant of the coronavirus, dashing widespread hopes that this year’s observances, unlike those of 2020, could once again fill synagogues with congregants worshipping side by side and exchanging hugs.
“I’m crushed emotionally that we’re not able to be in-person,” said Rabbi Judith Siegal, whose Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida, will hold only virtual services for the holy days as the pandemic’s upsurge buffets South Florida.
“For many rabbis, this is our favorite time of the year — we’re extroverts who love to be with people,” Siegal said. “We really miss being able to be together.”
Instead, Siegal and her staff are filling the synagogue’s sanctuary with cardboard cutouts of congregation members, including children and pets.
At many synagogues, such as The Temple in Nashville, Tennessee, there will be a mix of in-person services, including indoor and outdoor options, and virtual offerings for people staying home. In many cases, plans keep changing with the approach of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which starts the evening of Sept. 6, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on Sept. 15-16.
“There’s an asterisk by everything,” said The Temple’s senior rabbi, Mark Schiftan. “We’re not even sending out more than very tentative information about Yom Kippur because that’s too far out.”
At Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina, Rabbi Asher Knight and his staff have planned meticulously for holiday services, requiring advance registration for congregants whether they want to participate in person or online.
Everyone attending in person must wear a mask, and vaccinations are mandatory for all those 12 and over.
“Everything we do leads to the preservation of life,” Knight said.
Another Temple Beth El, in Augusta, Maine, also will require masks inside the synagogue. But workers have erected a big tent in the yard for an outdoor service Sept. 7.
“The ability to see people face to face is wonderful, whatever way they choose to come,” Rabbi Erica Asch said. “But there’s a little bit of sadness that we can’t all be together the way we’d like.”
At Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles serving about 10,000 people, no unvaccinated worshippers will be allowed on the campus during the holy days. That includes all children under 12 because they're ineligible for vaccinations, a decision Rabbi Noah Farkas called “the saddest thing we did this year.”
“All of us were hoping this holiday season was going to be a do-over from 2020,” Farkas said. “After all the pain, all the distancing, I was hoping we could shake it off and everyone could come back and give each other hugs. That’s not going to happen."
Amy Asin, who directs the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Strengthening Congregations” initiative, said many rabbis feel similar disappointment.
“There’s been an incredible amount of resilience over the past 18 months, and now there are very serious levels of exhaustion,” she said.
Another emotion — sorrow — pervades the 2,000-strong congregation at the Shul of Bar Harbour, an Orthodox synagogue in Surfside, Florida, the city where 98 people died when a condominium collapsed in June. Rabbi Sholom Lipskar estimates that 40% of those killed were Jewish, including perhaps a dozen or more who were active in the Shul community.
“There’s no question that this tragedy, and its lingering pain and anguish, is part of the community at this point,” Lipskar said. “At same time, recognizing who we are as Jewish people, we have learned to live with the most extraordinary adversity."
“God has blessed us,” he added. “We are here, we are alive, we have a purpose in life. We’re going to look to a new year. There’s a very big sense of power and renewal.”
Lipskar’s synagogue is one of about 1,100 across the U.S. affiliated with the Hasidic organization Chabad-Lubavitch. Chabad's media relations director, Rabbi Motti Seligson, said the synagogues will host in-person High Holy Days services, many of them outdoors, following guidelines from local medical authorities.
For those who choose to pray at home, Chabad is distributing a booklet containing Rosh Hashana prayers.
In some communities, pandemic worries are compounded by concerns over possible incidents of antisemitism during the High Holy Days, which overlap with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
A Jewish volunteer group, Community Security Services, has been promoting free webinars for New York-area Jews aimed at increasing security awareness. “The threat against Jews in NY has reached record levels," an online ad warned. "The hatred and violence is impacting all of us.”
"What’s striking about the threats is that they come from the left and right of the ideological spectrum," said Evan Bernstein, national director of Community Security Services.
“We have to be keenly aware of that and not think it’s only coming from one particular group," he said.
Security experts are concerned by white supremacists, pro-Palestinian activists and people embracing conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the pandemic, said Mitch Silber, who heads a regional security initiative on behalf of New York-based Jewish organizations.
“The Jewish community in the U.S is facing what may be the most diverse sets of threats we’ve ever seen,” Silber said.
With more services and events being held outdoors due to the pandemic, security experts say those might be more vulnerable to attacks and are offering advice on minimizing potential dangers.
But for the Chabad Jewish Center of St. Charles County, in greater St. Louis, holding services and events such as study groups outdoors has been essential during its short time in existence, having been founded in 2019 shortly before the pandemic hit.
“We’ve never had services indoors for high holidays,” Rabbi Chaim Landa said. “We’re going into the second year of this, but this is all we know thus far.”
Last year 120 people participated in the center’s Rosh Hashana observance in a park, and this year it's preparing for 200 people.
“We’re open for the high holidays,” Landa said. “Our calling is to be there at these important times.”