My dear DJCers. I’m going to be frank here. Leading services for Yamim Nora’im/the Days of Awe on Zoom, singing alone in my office, listening to Cantor Lisa sing alone in hers, and speaking to the little camera dot on my computer while trying to see you in your little Zoom boxes, in your separate homes, is the very antithesis of everything I believe community, moving prayer, transformative ritual, collective moral accounting, collective grieving, celebration and mobilizing around the work of antiracism and justice should be. This is all the more true in this historic time when we need to be building a culture of diverse and deep human connection, of daring and devoted spiritual activism, of wise and humble rootedness in the ancient and ancestral, translated with the courage of contemporary consciousness.
And yet, here we are.
We will be gathering on Zoom. We will be in our separate homes. We will not be in our beloved Bethminster building, nor hugging in the aisles, nor reaching across pews to meet new people. We will not be singing our hearts out together, carried by the choir and a sea of voices.
We are three weeks away from Rosh Hashana and I am further behind than ever before in writing my sermons and teachings because it has been important and right to focus my time and energy on counseling members who are in pain right now – isolated, depressed, scared, overwhelmed, facing financial insecurity, struggling in so many different ways and deeply needing the very things that Jewish community is supposed to provide.
This is going to be a challenging one to pull off.
I do want you to know that the leadership team has been learning a lot over these months about leading meaningful, joyful, participatory services on line – surprising our bnei mitzvah families by how beautiful and connected an on-line service can be! We have been working and planning to weave in many familiar High Holyday elements while making the services shorter, using technology creatively and finding various ways to actively engage the community. As always, the Aliyot Team has been in months of conversation, developing the themes and crafting meaningful invitations to draw you close to Torah and address what is most important about these times. Cantor Lisa has been working with the choir, and I promise you will hear their stirring voices. And there is more work happening behind the scenes than I will describe at the moment to make this all run smoothly, to be accessible, and to be dynamic for all ages and stages.
BUT this will all fall flat on its face, a bad reality TV experiment (Unorthodox, The Danforth Series??), UNLESS you help make it human, soulful, important and real. And that will require preparation.
Here’s what you can do:
1) Connect with one another before Rosh Hashana:
There are several programs on the calendar in the coming weeks that are truly valuable opportunities to get to know one another in new ways, to welcome new members, and remind each other that you belong here, whoever you are, as an essential part of this community. It matters that you show up. Come together for Shofar Mondays; the Shabbat Zoom Picnic; the Family Meet and Greet.
You can also sign up to take part in a community-created Zoom Rosh Hashana dinner and/or a post-Yom Kippur Break Fast. Let’s make sure that no one is our community is marking this time alone, and let’s strengthen the lines of connection between us.
2) Turn your Home into a Shul:
Put thought into setting up your space to make it a sanctuary. Orient your chairs to face east. Decorate with flowers and beautiful fabrics. Clear away clutter and have room to move. Dress for the occasion. It’s true that no one will know if you are wearing pants. Nonetheless, greet the New Year wearing clothes that feel celebratory and special. Inhabit the solemn radiance of Yom Kippur by wearing white, a symbolic death shroud, as we die to our old selves, face our mortality and embody a sense of being cleansed and renewed.
3) Gather Prayer-ephenalia – Acquire what you can, and get creative:
Dust off your best kippah or make a new one (extra points for a matching kippah and mask set!).
If you don’t own a tallit and would like to wear one, you can buy one or borrow one from the DJC by contacting Anne Shaddick – firstname.lastname@example.org. A tallit is worn post-bnei mitzvah age on Rosh Hashana mornings and all of Yom Kippur, from Kol Nidrei to Ne’ilah.
For Erev Rosh Hashana, have at the ready – 2 Candles, grape juice or wine, 2 challot (traditionally round with raisins), apples and honey;
For Rosh Hashana Day 1 and 2 – Grape juice/wine, 2 challot, apples and honey;
For Kol Nidrei – 2 Candles, and a Yahrzeit candle if immediate family members have died.
For Ne’ilah – Havdalah candle (candle with 3 or more wicks), juice/wine, spices (eg. cloves, cinnamon). And if you have a shofar for the last blast, have it ready.
And while you’re thinking about Judaica in your home, Sukkot is only 5 days after Yom Kippur! This is the perfect year to build a sukkah if you can and to celebrate with a lulav and etrog. They can be ordered in advance.
4) It can’t all rest on the service leaders:
Prayer doesn’t work. Ritual doesn’t work. Meditation doesn’t work. YOU work. It is always true that it is not up to the rabbi, cantor, choir and other speakers to make the services meaning or transformative for you. All the more so this year. Take time in these weeks of Elul, the last month of the year, for cheshbon hanefesh/soul accounting, reflecting on who you have been and what our society has been in the past year – taking stock, making amends, giving tzedakah and taking steps to increase justice and compassion, all laying the groundwork for the practices of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to help us grow into the people we mean to be.
What prayers can you explore in advance, deepening your understanding and connection with the services? What learning would make these days more fruitfully challenging, relevant and meaningful? Some great resources: myjewishlearing.com; hadar.org; jewishemergentnetwork.org; reconstructingjudaism.org.
Get ready to sing: while the experience of sitting in your home and singing along might feel awkward or strange to some of you, remember that no one else can hear you. Even if you think you have a crummy voice, sing anyway. How liberating might it be to sing like you’ve never sung before, giving genuine voice to your soul! Take time to learn the words and become familiar with some melodies – hadar.org/tefillah-music.
I believe that we can create something truly moving, humanly connected, importantly relevant and soulful together. I very much look forward to seeing each of your faces on screen, singing together, learning from each other and being exactly what Jewish community is meant to be to carry one another through these challenging and precious times. May this year be filled with creativity, sincerity, courage and love.