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Online or in-person?

Safety is the first priority for the High Holidays

By Stacey Dresner


Rabbi Valerie Cohen of Temple Emanuel Sinai in Worcester began thinking about High Holiday services at her synagogue right after Passover, spurred on by concern about Covid-19.

“We started thinking about it early, earlier than I’ve ever thought about the High Holidays before,” Rabbi Cohen said. 

In early June, the TES board made the decision that High Holiday services this year would be virtual.

“The decision was made because nobody knew what was going to happen and we could either spend a tremendous amount of energy pivoting if we needed to, or we could spend a tremendous amount of energy doing a really good job planning something that we knew we would be able to do no matter what.”

“We have been exploring what we can do in person safely…We haven’t done anything in person yet, although we’re working on it and I’m hoping that by the end of the month we will have an in-person gathering,” she said. “If that goes well, then we might be able to do an in-person gathering between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that has a High Holiday element to it. We are planning for what I would call a drive-in shofar blowing experience – a drive-in in our parking lot. I think the value of hearing the shofar is one of the most important things that people want and need on the high holidays… And I think we are going to do it on the afternoon of the second day of Rosh Hashana.”

“We are working hard to plan services with the acknowledgment that we are in a different venue,” said Rabbi Cohen. “We are not going to plop what we have done in the past into an online service.”

Like Temple Emanuel Sinai, most, if not all Reform and Conservative congregations will be holding Zoom and live-streamed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services this year.

Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, which is Conservative, will be holding shortened 2- to 3-hour live-streamed Rosh Hashana services and abridged live-streamed Kol Nidrei, Yom Kippur, and Neilah services. 

On the evening of July 29, Erev Tisha B’Av, Rabbi Aviva Fellman of Congregation Beth Israel led the congregation’s first in-person service at the synagogue since the Covid outbreak. Sixteen members attended while the service was Zoomed to 30 households.  (See page 7 “On Tisha B’av, The Rabbi Cried Happy Tears.”)


“I refuse to make our community choose between being part of our community by coming in person and their safety by staying home and so it is of paramount importance that we offer, especially as we have started opening for limited in-person gatherings, streaming or zoom (service dependent) as well,” said Rabbi Fellman.

 “I work tirelessly to break down barriers to inclusion and foster acceptance of all in religious spaces and this is no different. We do not need to carry the High Holy Days alone and this is a way to help engage and be “home” during the holidays.”

Congregation Beth Israel will allow members to register for Ark visits during the month of Elul, so that they can offer personal prayers, a custom of the temple’s Neilah service.

They are also asking members who have shofars to gather safely around town for live shofar blowing in the second day of Rosh Hashana.

Orthodox synagogues, like Congregation B’nai Torah in Longmeadow, will not be holding online or electronically transmitted services on the High Holidays for reasons of halacha. But B’nai Torah will be offering a couple of different in-person service options for its members.

B’nai Torah has sent out a survey to all of its members sharing the options and asking members what services they would like to attend.

Depending on how many register for the services, outdoor and tented services might be possible.

Due to state guidelines on indoor events – 10 people per thousand square feet —  B’nai Torah must limit the number of members at each indoor service at its Eunice Drive synagogue to 80 in both the sanctuary and attached social hall. Those attending must wear masks and maintain 6-feet of social distance.


Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe said they are making some concessions this year with regard to concerns about Covid.

“Not only are we following all the state guidelines and so on… we have made it clear to our membership that if their doctors say there is a degree of danger they shouldn’t come and they should pray at home. We are doing a lot of things to facilitate. One is, based on how people respond to our survey, if I have enough people in an area we can do shofar services in parks or open areas. If I get enough people from a neighborhood say, I can walk over. For people who are truly homebound we’ll show up and they can open their window and hear it from a safe distance.”

Making that even safer, the shofar is blown only on the second day this year, because you don’t blow the shofar on Shabbat, upon which the first day of Rosh Hashana falls.

In addition, because the Kol Nidre prayer is actually recited before Yom Kippur starts, B’nai Jacob will be able to Zoom the prayer.

This includes services at its Eunice Drive building and its Sumner Avenue location in Forest Park, but space there is extremely limited.

There will be a traditional full service although shortened from the usual length as per Rabbinic guidelines regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The reason the service is so long on Yom Kippur is because there is liturgical poetry which is very beautiful in whatever language you say it, but because the time of exposure is a big issue, the service is going to be much shorter.  Rabbi Yaffe also likes to hold “user-friendly” services “for those who aren’t necessarily familiar with Hebrew …an abridged version,  much more explained and much more accessible.”

But holding such services on the busy High Holidays hasn’t always been easy. 

“Now since the morning service, the primary service is so much shorter, in the afternoon we will be having the user-friendly service,” Rabbi Yaffee said. “Whether we have an outdoor service or a tent is dependent upon what people say in our comprehensive survey. That is up in the air right now.” 

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