Thursday, December 8th 2022   |

High Holidays signal a return to in-person worship for most area congregants

By DEAN SHAPIRO, A CCJN Special Report

As the High Holy Days approach and the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, services at the New Orleans area synagogues will be largely returning to normal for the first time since 2019, barring the threat of a major hurricane or other serious weather event approaching or reaching the local mainland.

Rosh Hashanah symbolic foods of challah, apples, honey and pomegranates. (Photo courtesy ©PJLibrary)

Observances of Rosh Hashanah 5783 and Yom Kippur will be offered in live, in-shul services with restrictions from the worst two years of the pandemic lifted. The wearing of face coverings, according to the rabbis interviewed for this article, will be optional for those who are still taking precautions, but other previous pandemic protocols such as temperature-measuring devices and distanced seating, will not be in place.

However, the rabbis from the New Orleans area’s worship facilities are urging caution and encouraging those who might have had the virus recently or might be ailing in other ways to stay home and follow the services via live-stream platforms offered by the individual shuls. (Editor’s note: This option is not available for Orthodox congregants.)

Senior rabbis conducting the services have also emphasized that heightened security precautions are going to be in place for all High Holy Days functions.

The Crescent City Jewish News recently interviewed many of the senior rabbis of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in New Orleans and Metairie and the 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 on Sunday, September 25 and Yom Kippur arrives on the evening of Wednesday, October 4.

The following is a summary of three of the local synagogues’ offerings for the High Holidays. (Complete schedules of the synagogues’ services can be found on their individual websites which will be listed, along with phone numbers, at the end of each section below.)

CONGREGATION GATES OF PRAYER

“Things are pretty much back to normal here,” said Senior Rabbi David Gerber of the Congregation Gates of Prayer Reform Synagogue in Metairie. “Barring any storms or other major events, everything is scheduled as it should be.

Congregation Gates of Prayer Synagogue. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Face masks are optional for those who feel safer wearing them, but they are not a requirement for entry to the High Holy Days services or any other services or social events at CGOP, Gerber explained. There will be no taking of temperatures at the entrance to the sanctuary, nor will worshipers be required to leave space between them in the seating section, he further noted.

For the first time in three years there will be a choir during High Holy Days services and the cantor will be up on the bimah singing freely with no screen in front of her. Other Torah and announcement readings will be taking place on the bimah as well.

Gerber said that once again he and a second person will be carrying the Torah scrolls in processions through the sanctuary seating area for congregants to touch with their prayer books. Yarmulkes and tallits will be available at the entrances for those who choose to wear them in the sanctuary and prayer books will also be handed out at the sanctuary doors.

Services will also be live-streamed for those who, for whatever reason, cannot attend the services in person, Gerber explained. “We use a streaming service called BoxCast, which broadcasts through our website and our Facebook page,” he said. The Zoom platform, he added, is only used for the classroom learning sessions.

Also resuming is the traditional Tashlich, casting off of sins ceremony at the Bonnabel boat launch on Lake Pontchartrain following the Rosh Hashanah daytime service.

As for social events, Gerber said those will resume as well. Apples and honey will be offered following the Rosh Hashanah service and a full Succot schedule is planned, beginning on October 10. Succot participation will return to its former space alongside the synagogue building.

And, as always, to be on the safe side, a security detail from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and a private security company will be on duty standing watch while services are in progress. “We’ve also done a fair amount of security upgrades in the building since our last normal services and we continue to improve every year on the security,” Gerber said.

“So now we’re back in business and happy about it and we’re hoping the storms stay away, Gerber added. “I hope that it is truly a return and everybody’s comfortable and feeling safe and healthy. I just couldn’t be more thrilled to get back in the sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah with everybody,” he concluded.

For more detailed information visit the Congregation Gates of Prayer Facebook page or its website, www.gatesofprayer.org. Their phone number is 504-885-2600.

TEMPLE SINAI

At Temple Sinai, the New Orleans area’s largest Reform congregation, Senior Rabbi Daniel Sherman is being “guardedly optimistic” about a return to normal after two years of COVID-related restrictions but he also affirmed that those restrictions have been lifted for High Holy Days services and the foreseeable future.

“I’m not sure I know what’s normal anymore,” Sherman said. “We are looking forward to things being as normal as possible and so that means we are hoping to have as many people as possible in person for all of our High Holy Days services. Our receptions that we haven’t done for two years are back.”

Temple Sinai. (Photo by Alan Smason)

The wearing of masks in the sanctuary during services, the rabbi added, “will be up to the individual. They’re encouraged but not required.” For those who forget to bring them, masks will be available at the sanctuary entrances. Yarmulkes will also be available for those who may have forgotten to bring their own.

Temperatures will not be taken at the door and there are no distancing requirements for the seating of congregants during services. Those who might be apprehensive about sitting too close to other people will have plenty of room to spread out. “Our sanctuary is large enough to accommodate them,” Sherman said.

For the first time since 2019, there will be a choir singing from behind a screen at the rear of the bimah. Cantor Joel Colman will be singing from the bimah without the plastic screen in front of him, as had been the case for the past two years.

Oral Torah readings and special announcements from the bimah will also resume, although Sherman emphasized that there will be limits on how many people will be allowed up there. A decision on whether or not the rabbi and another person will be walking the Torah scrolls through the congregation had not been finalized at the time this interview was conducted.

There will be no limits to the number of people who will be allowed to attend services at one time (it was 50 people for the past two years) “Our sanctuary can seat a thousand people. We have plenty of room,” Sherman said, adding that scheduling an additional service(s) would most likely be unnecessary.

As part of the heightened security measures, reservations will be required for attendance at both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Names on a list will be checked off as the individuals arrive. “With everything that’s going on these days we need to know who is in the building,” Sherman stated. And, as always, details from the New Orleans Police Department will also be on hand.

Following the Rosh Hashanah evening service there will be a sweets reception in the auditorium for those who want to participate, as well as a luncheon after Rosh Hashanah morning. Reservations are required.

Although stating that the emphasis will once again be on the in-person services, Sherman also stressed that streaming of the High Holy Days services will once again be available via Zoom for those who are unable to attend in person. Sherman advised those who may be ill with any type of potentially contagious ailment to stay home and view the services on the streaming platform.

Sherman also expressed confidence that the observance of Succot, coming five days after Yom Kippur, will also return to normal; again, barring a COVID variant resurgence or a major storm. He encourages congregants to check the synagogue website and/or Facebook page, as well as weekly e-blasts for the latest updates, if any.

Wrapping up on an optimistic note, Sherman said, “Last year we were scattered all around (due to Hurricane Ida). Many people who were back in town were busy trying to put homes back together again and so Yom Kippur didn’t have the feel it usually does. We’re really hoping that this year we have more of a homecoming, and those who are away can take advantage of the online option and feel like a participant. I wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year.”

For more detailed information visit the Temple Sinai Facebook page or its website, www.templesinainola.com  Their phone number is 504-861-3693.

SHIR CHADASH

Echoing most of the sentiments of his counterparts from the Reform temples, Rabbi Scott Hoffman from the Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation in Metairie, made the following statement:

“From present indications, though we will offer live-streams as we always do as an option for people, the primary thrust of services will be in person. Most people, I think, will be physically in the building. It’s hard to say exactly what the masking policy will be; that’s more to be judged in live time. It’s probably recommended and that’s kind of where we are now.”

Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation. (Photo by Alan Smason)

However, while calling for “exercising an abundance of caution” for the safety of those who might be most vulnerable (young children and the elderly), Hoffman added, “But unless it gets much worse I do not see us going back to requiring masks” and other preventative steps that were taken the COVID mandate.

Those who are on the bimah during the services, including the cantor, will be masked if they are not speaking or singing, Hoffman said. But while they’re speaking or singing the masks will be off so that people in the congregation can hear them better. He will also be masked while walking around with the Torah scrolls and he is limiting hand-shaking and other means of physical contact.

Distance spacing in the sanctuary will be available to those who prefer it and there will be a small mask-only exclusively for that purpose.

“So, while we’re leading the prayers we don’t mask. Even during high COVID,” Hoffman explained. “Once the vaccines came out we permitted the leaders to be unmasked. And it was the same for bar and bat mitzvahs. We permitted all who were leading to be unmasked and we left the first couple of rows open so we weren’t near to other people.”

There won’t be any temperature-taking prior to entering the sanctuary. Yarmulkes, tallits and prayer books will be available for those who don’t have them.

At present, Shir Chadash doesn’t have a choir, so there is no issue over whether or not the singers would be masked. Hoffman hinted that eventually a choir might be hired.

Live-streaming of High Holy Days services will once again be made available to those who are homebound, ill or otherwise unable to attend in person, Hoffman emphasized. Viewers at home will be able to observe the services on the shul’s website but not interact with them as would be the case with Zoom. Prayer books can be hand delivered to those who may need them to follow along at home.

As for security measures, Shir Chadash will once again hire armed deputies from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office to guard the synagogue during services and other events. “We have several officers who work with us on a regular basis every week,” Hoffman said.

Following the morning Rosh Hashanah service the traditional Tashlich casting off of sins event will take place alongside Lake Pontchartrain, just across the levee from the parsonage where Hoffman resides.

Assuming that there is no recurrence of a COVID variant outbreak and there are no serious weather events, Succot observance will go on as normal, beginning on the Monday after Yom Kippur, Hoffman confirmed.

In closing, Hoffman said, “Those of us who are blessed to have survived this difficult period offer our thanks for having been privileged to successfully persevere in difficult times and also to ensure that we remember those who were not so fortunate and continue through our memory to make their lives a blessing for the Jewish people. On behalf of the entire Shir Chadash community I would like to wish everybody a healthy and happy 5783.”

For more detailed information visit the Shir Chadash Facebook page or its website, www.shirchadash.org. Their phone number is 504-889-1144.

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