Area synagogues to observe High Holy Days virtually and limited in-person
BY DEAN M. SHAPIRO, Special to the CCJN
As sundown approaches on the New Year and the hurricane threat passes, rabbis and their staffs at the three New Orleans area Reform synagogues and the Conservative congregation in Metairie are concluding preparations for celebrating the High Holy Days in an unprecedented way.
Observances of Rosh Hashannah 5781 and Yom Kippur will be offered through a variety of live and pre-recorded streaming services and some limited in-person events with safety precautions in place, owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Crescent City Jewish News interviewed the senior rabbis of the Reform synagogues of Touro and Temple Sinai in New Orleans and Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, along with the pulpit rabbi of the lone Conservative congregation in Metairie. The four clergy leaders discussed their plans for holding services and other activities related to the holiest days on the Hebrew calendar.
Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset tonight, Friday, September 18 and Yom Kippur arrives on the evening of Sunday, September 27.
The following is a summary of the four synagogues’ offerings for the two celebratory occasions (complete schedules of the synagogues’ services appear under Breaking News.)
CONGREGATION GATES OF PRAYER
“We are taking extraordinary precautions for our in-person services and we’re following a set of strict guidelines,” said senior Rabbi David Gerber of Congregation Gates of Prayer. “We’re only taking (a maximum of) 50 people for the services and people will be seated far enough apart.
We think that people can feel very comfortable. They’re not going to be too close to one another,” he added.
Gerber explained that temperatures will be taken at the door. All attendees are required to wear a mask for the entire duration of the service and specially appointed congregation members will be monitoring to make sure that all masks are worn properly. Instructions will be given on the safest ways to pray along and there will not be any call and response worship or reading together.
“Most of the prayers are coming from the bimah and we’re inviting people to pray along at a relatively quiet volume,” Gerber said, adding that the cantor will be singing behind a glass screen and no congregants will be seated within 25 feet of him. There will not be a choir.
These in-person guidelines will be in effect for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Gerber noted. Reservations were required in advance and could be made over the phone or on the CGOP website.
Gerber emphasized the importance of RSVP’ing as early as possible, especially for Kol Nidre on the evening of September 27, which, he said, is very popular. Additional services will be offered at various times once the 50-person maximum is reached.
Customary live security precautions will be taken at all temple services and events during the High Holy Days. None of the social gatherings that normally precede services or the group events that follow will be held.
Another live event will be the Tashlich Service led by Emeritus Rabbi Robert Loewy at the Bonnabel Boat Launch on Saturday afternoon, where participants will symbolically cast off their sins into Lake Pontchartrain. No RSVP is required for this ceremony.
Live streamed services will be pre-recorded and viewable on Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo, as well as on the congregation’s website. Visit www.gatesofprayer.org for more details.
Since the pandemic was officially declared in March and in-person worship was shut down for the next several months, services have been streamed to CGOP congregants at home. “We’ve had plenty of practice by now and since we started running in-person worship with a small number of people about a month ago we’ve been able to keep our people safe,” Gerber said.
“We’ve got good medical consultants,” the rabbi continued. “We’re pretty comfortable in how we’ve been operating those services and we think for those people who don’t have pre-existing conditions and are comfortable being out, it’s important for some face-to-face, in-person worship. As long as we can do it safely we’ll keep on doing it.”
A full slate of both in-person and streamed events will be offered by Temple Sinai for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and options are offered for congregants who wish to participate in live services as well as those who prefer to live stream in the safety of their own homes.
“We decided we would offer an in-person option for the evening services,” said Temple Sinai Rabbi Daniel Sherman. “We know the majority of our congregation will be joining us online this year as we try to keep everyone safe and healthy.
A live, in-person evening service will be held to usher in Rosh Hashnnah (Friday, Sept. 18) and two late afternoon/early evening services will be held on Yom Kippur on Suday, Sept. 27, for Kol Nidre. All other offerings will be viewable online for both Holy Days at various times.
Reservations are being taken for the in-person services in the Temple Sinai sanctuary which will admit up to 200 worshipers at a time. Strictly enforced safety regulations will be in effect. Attendees will enter the sanctuary directly from the street rather than through the building. (Exceptions will be made for the physically disabled.)
“We will spread everyone out at a safe distance from each other,” Sherman said. “Everyone who is attending will have to wear a mask We have a brand new air conditioning system with filters and we think we can make this happen for everyone. Our goal is to keep everyone safe and healthy.”
Sherman explained that the prayer books that attendees pick up will be clean and only handled once. They will not be re-used for any other services or events. Yarmulkes will not be available to those who choose to wear one in the sanctuary during services. “Everyone will have to bring their own,” Sherman said.
“We have done a lot of cleaning and sanitizing. We love the idea of getting people into the sanctuary, even though we know that the majority of our congregation will be unable to join us this year as a way of staying safe,” the rabbi added.
Cantor Joel Colman will be joining the rabbi on the bimah behind a plexiglass shield at a safe distance from the audience. As an added precaution, no choir singing will be a part of any of the services.
As for the passing of the Torah scrolls, one of the highlights of the traditional Yom Kippur service, Sherman said it is “still under consideration. We are brainstorming ways that we could possibly do that. We’ve had to re-examine every facet of the service and re-think a lot of things,” he said.
“We’re also trying to be conscious of the timing of the services for those who might be in-person, as well as those who are logging in from home,” Sherman explained. “It’s not easy to sit in front of your computer for too long, so we are trying to be cognizant of that. We want things to feel comfortable and familiar, even though so much is going to feel different.” Services will last approximately one hour, he added.
Those who choose not to attend the live services, live streaming options include Zoom, Facebook Live and logging on to the CGOP website. “We want people to feel connected, especially those who might be watching at home by themselves,” Sherman said. “We want them to still have a sense of congregation. We can do that through Zoom and everyone being on at the same time.”
Services will be viewable afterward on the synagogue’s website for those who might have missed the live presentation.
“I’ve been preparing for High Holy Days for many years but I never prepared for one quite like this,” Sherman said. “We’re trying our best to accommodate everyone to make it possible for people to participate. It’s been challenging for sure. It’ll be good to come together whether in person or online to pray for a good and healthy new year for our families, our community, our people, our country and our world.”
Unlike the other two Reform congregations on the South Shore, Touro Synagogue will not be hosting any live, in-person services. However Touro scored a major coup when it convinced the management at WLAE Channel 32 to televise live major portions of the High Holy Days’ services, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“All of our services are virtual,” said Touro Senior Rabbi Katie Bauman. “The broadcast on WLAE will create maximum access for the congregation. We have so many members with different comfort levels with technology and we wanted family groups who aren’t seeing each other to be together comfortably. So we thought this would be an important addition to the way we are getting out to our people.”
Rosh Hashannah services will be broadcast at 8 pm Friday and 10:00 Friday morning. Kol Nidre service will be broadcast at 8 pm Sunday, September 27 and Yom Kippur morning service will be at 10:00 am the following day. Yizkor services will be televised at 4 pm on the 28th and concluding services will also be broadcast.
Rabbi Bauman, along with her cantor, will be on the bimah at Touro with no congregants in the sanctuary. There will not be a choir but a string quartet will be performing instead. The remote broadcast will be beamed to the TV station’s studios on Howard Avenue.
Streaming of the Touro services will be via Stream Spot, as well as through the Touro website and on Facebook Live. Services will generally run for an hour and a half to two hours.
Several in-person events will be held by Touro at various outdoor locations, including Tashlich services, but the locations were not publicly disclosed. Those wishing to find out more can do so by calling the synagogue directly.
Bauman said that all of Touro’s outdoor activities have reached capacity, “But we’re happy to help people find ways to celebrate even if they can’t be at a session,” she added. And, she noted, if there are any cancellations people on the waiting list could be called to fill the opening(s).
“We also have a lot of printed material, so if people want to do it themselves we have liturgy for them to go with their close family and do the rituals themselves,” Bauman said.
“We made this decision back in May to not attempt to gather people indoors in person,” Bauman explained. “We wanted to begin to plan a beautiful holiday observance that would work in any phase and not have to change our plan at the last minute should our phase change close to the time.”
Bauman continued, “We didn’t want to either make some services inaccessible to people because of health reasons or because we have limited the numbers when we reached our capacity. Nor did we want to create a situation where people would feel an obligation to come against the better medical advice for their situation. So televising the services seemed like the most equitable and certainly the safest way to celebrate this year.”
This year’s High Holy Days bring a totally new experience to Rabbi Deborah Silver and her Conservative congregation at Shir Chadash in Metairie, as it has done to Conservative synagogues throughout the world: a reliance on 21st century technology to get their message out to their congregants.
“Within the Conservative movement we recently passed a legal opinion that committed to the use of technology with limitations,” Rabbi Silver explained. “It’s a completely new experience; entirely new and unprecedented in Conservative Judaism.”
Shir Chadash will be streaming its entire slate of services for both Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur with the exception of a live minyan that will be establishing the quorum for praying in the synagogue’s sanctuary. That minyan, the rabbi said, has been carefully selected after its participants fulfilled all of the COVID-19 safety testing requirements and no one else but clergy will be admitted to the sanctuary for the duration of the High Holy Days.
The Zoom webinar stream, Silver said, will be coming over the Shir Chadash website and is accessible with just the click of a single button on the site. Congregants and others wishing to tune in can go to the website, www.chirhadash.org, and click where it says “Click here to join our High Holy Day services.” Silver advises getting the services set up and ready to go before both Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur services begin.
“We’re aiming for as seamless an experience as possible, whereby the room in which we are praying still feels like shul,” Silver said. She also referred viewers to a series of three short videos she placed on the shul’s Facebook page on how to set up what she calls “Home Schuling.”
Silver urged all viewers not to post messages during the Zoom feeds. “We don’t want people using their computers for anything else except to watch,” she emphasized.
Silver praised the work of the shul’s High Holy Day task force of ten people that was set up in order to be able to deliver the services virtually to members of the congregation in their homes. “We’ve really been blessed by this extraordinary and dedicated task force that has been working since the beginning of the summer to put all this together,” she said, adding that they are already working on preparations for Sukkot and related Simhat Torah observances, which come just a few days after Yom Kippur.
Joining Rabbi Silver on the bimah will be David Kaplinsky, a local rabbinical student who will be serving as Sheliach Siddur and cantorial soloist. (An article on Kaplinsky will run during next week following the conclusion of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.)
Rosh Hashannah services will be streamed at 6:00 pm Friday, Sept. 18 and 9:00 am Saturday, Sept. 19, after which a series of other services will follow. Another Rosh Hashanah service on Day 2 will be at 9:00 a.m., followed by two other services that morning. On that same day, at 4:30 p.m. on the levee at Hessmer Avenue, the shofar will be blown.
Kol Nidre will be observed and streamed at 6:30 pm Sunday, Sept. 27 and morning Yom Kippur service will be streamed at 9:00 on the 28th, followed by other services throughout the day.