Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — begins Friday night.
It’s normally a time marked by big family dinners and congregants filing into synagogues to take in the sound of the shofar.
But this isn’t a normal year, forcing Jews across the Philadelphia region (and around the world) to make adjustments to celebrate the holiday safely during a pandemic.
One informal group of congregants from Germantown Jewish Centre in Mt. Airy is gathering in a large backyard for services. Other synagogues are holding services virtually.
“It is actually sad that we can’t all be together, that we can’t be physically there as a community,” said Rabbi Linda Holtzman. “A lot of the power of Hashanah is all of us together.”
Holtzman leads the Tikkun Olam Chavurah, a social justice-focused congregation in Philadelphia that typically draws 100 to 150 people each week. In the past, the group rented out a local church to conduct Rosh Hashanah services. This year, everything will be on Zoom, including the blowing of the shofar, a critical part of the High Holiday.
Holtzman will run things from a sanctuary inside the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Montgomery County, where she’s a professor.
“I’m gonna be positioned in front of the ark so people can see a Torah scroll, and so I can take out the Torah scroll and read it and have it at least feel like it’s fully part of the regular service,” said Holtzman.
And while going virtual isn’t her first choice, she said it’s better than nothing.
“As much as Zoom drives me crazy, it also does give us something. And one of the things it gives is the ability to be with people from a distance,” said Holtzman.
Jonathan Broder, a member of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, will be following Rosh Hashanah services from his living room in Center City with his wife, daughter and few other members of his immediate family. His synagogue has pre-recorded them. Broder plans to stream them on his iPad, then send the feed to his television so everyone can see.
The dress code for the home service is still up in the air.
“I think all of this is sort of going to be in-the-moment quite frankly,” said Broder, adding that he will miss the live music that traditionally accompanies Rosh Hashanah services at Rodeph Shalom.
There’s usually a choir and some live instrumentation.
“They’re figuring something out. But the feeling of being in the presence of live music is not something you can replicate — certainly not from an emotional standpoint, he said.
One holiday tradition will be performed in person — a ritual known as Tashlich. The ceremony traditionally involves worshippers throwing pieces of bread into moving water to symbolically cast off their sins from the past year.
Broder and members of his synagogue are going the traditional route — with masks and social distancing. In a social justice twist, Holtzman and her congregants will spread birdseed in front of the School District of Philadelphia’s headquarters.
“We’re hoping that we can symbolically start a new year — demanding fair funding, demanding equal treatment for students in schools around the city,” said Holtzman.
Rosh Hashanah concludes Sunday evening.