To Survive COVID-19, the Jewish High Holidays Go Virtual—or Outdoors—Across L.A.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur gatherings will be more about filling screens than seats this year, but some synagogues are still opting for in-person services

Jews worldwide usher in a new year—5781—beginning September 14 with Rosh Hashanah, by legend, the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, and concluding with prayers, a 24-hour fast, and final shofar call at sunset on September 28.

How observant Jews celebrate, however, will be far different this year due to COVID-19.

“It’s the first time in 350 years of American Jewish history that nobody’s going to synagogue on the holidays,” says Rabbi Ed Feinstein, spiritual leader at Valley Beth Shalom. “Across the country, most everybody is going to be in some fashion virtual. We’re helping [members] understand how they can turn their homes into a small synagogue.”

For Feinstein’s congregation, that means getting a gift bag with “everything you need to celebrate the holiday” to every family. “It’ll have a prayer book and it’ll have honey to celebrate the sweetness and it’ll have a special surprise that will open up during one of the services,” Feinstein says.

Valley Beth Shalom has 1,500 member families, and typically serves 5,000 to 6,000 people. Feinstein believes they have no choice but to be all virtual: “We don’t see a way to responsibly gather in person for the holidays.”

During a pandemic, when people look to their faith, religious institutions face daunting restrictions. Health officials mandate holding large gatherings outdoors, with social distancing.

Some have refused, claiming First Amendment rights. On August 21, Pastor Rob McCoy of the Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park was held in contempt by a Superior Court judge for continuing to hold indoor services. In July, Grace Community Church in Sun Valley was sued by L.A. County after Pastor John McArthur was found to have violated country health officers orders to move outside. A month later, an L.A. County court granted them to right to continue to hold indoor services.

Still, the lawsuits were on the minds of rabbis as they made plans at more than 120 Jewish temples, synagogues, yeshivas, and other congregations in greater L.A. It meant meeting official requirements and the faith’s own rules and traditions.

At the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles there was history to draw upon, says Senior Rabbi David Wolpe. First founded in 1906, Sinai was around in 1918 when the U.S. suffered an Influenza pandemic, aka the “Spanish Flu,” which killed as many as 50 million people worldwide.

“What happened was for two to three months there were no in-person gatherings,” Wolpe says. “And when the synagogue was reopened afterwards, people rushed in and couldn’t wait to see each other. And I think that same thing will happen today.”

This year, Sinai is going mostly virtual with seven different services, each about two hours long, that will be live streamed and also include produced segments. Those on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur day will be free, while the rest will be for members only. All will be free on demand afterward.

Members will also get a gift bag with a prayer book, a memorial book and candle, a honey stick, pomegranate tea, apple-caramel lollipops, and a book of reflections.

There’s also a brief physical event. Sinai is partnering with a synagogue in West Hills, Shomrei Torah, for three services, “specifically for people who want to hear the shofar in person,” Wolpe explains.

“We’re going to join with them in their parking lot and have people drive in.” 

The cost of going virtual is more than Sinai usually spends. “It’s very hard to sit in front of a screen and feel devotional,” Wolpe says. “So, we hired a company to try to help us create a feeling that is something other than, ‘Oh, I’m watching a TV show.’ We’re trying to cultivate a means of being close without being together.”

The Stephen Wise Temple, where the 1,800-member families include about 5,000 people who usually attend in person, are also going virtual for the first time. Wise has numerous digital events, and is making its High Holiday feed available for free. “We also have a Zoom event [in advance] that night for members,” says Jeremy Goldstein, Stephen Wise’s Director of Marketing and Communications. “Each service is going to be roughly an hour to an hour and 15 minutes.”

Rabbi David Baron of Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills has estimated 90 percent of services will be virtual in the U.S. this year. His temple has a hybrid offer: digital live streams or an on-site, outdoor service.

The physical service, which is being held at a mansion in Bel Air, will have capacity for 400 people. They’ll add a second service if needed—they have 1,400 member families—but Baron doubts they’ll have to. He says many older members won’t chance it.

Temple of the Arts has a history with video. For over 25 years, they’ve broadcast and webcast their Yom Kippur service for the homebound, drawing a national audience in excess of 300,000 viewers, according to Baron. This year, they added Rosh Hashanah. Five different services over ten days will be live streamed and then available on demand, with versions syndicated to TV.

Hosting the outdoor services in Bel Air is a huge task and won’t come cheaply. Baron estimates it’ll cost $100,000 more than normal, which is being donated in money and services by members.

“The question,” Baron says of putting together the outdoor gathering, “was how you do it safely?”

Their first-choice venue was Beverly Hills High School. Baron and his board were enthusiastic. “The baseball diamond would be perfect for our purposes,” says Baron, “but the County said that that all schools in L.A. County may not rent their facilities for religious gatherings or large gatherings. We were very disappointed.”

Luckily, a board member offered to donate use of his 30-acre mansion in Bel Air, with services on a large lawn, under a tent. It will be set up for safety, require masks and social distancing (up to four in a family can sit together), and here will hand sanitizing stations and repeated cleanings.

The message is that “we need to stand up to the disease,” Baron says. “Those feeling healthy will be pioneers taking first steps to say, ‘We can do things safely and sensibly, and we don’t have to live in prison.'”

Not everyone is going digital. Chabad Bel Air, where services will move outdoors, is completely reinventing how it does onsite services.

“We’re creating an outdoor facility with a tent cover where each person will be wearing two masks—a mask plus a screen—and sitting, six feet apart,” says Rabbi Chaim Mentz. Chabad will supply the mask and screen for each person.

“If God want us to have [services] two hours at night and four hours a day on Yom Kippur, he would take away the pandemic.”

In past years Chabad Bel Air celebrated the High Holy Days with a thousand people, but this year attendance is limited to 400 who’ve attended in past years. There’s seating for 50 at each of five services on Rosh Hashanah and seven services on Yom Kippur. Each will last an hour with Mentz and his Cantor presiding. Between services, Mentz says, “we’re hiring people to spray down chairs with alcohol, Clorox.” Same goes for the bathrooms.

The shortened services they’ll be adopting break with orthodox tradition, but Mentz believes it is “not a problem because God wants us to look at safety first, and still allow people an opportunity to come and serve on the holidays. If God want us to have two hours at night and four hours a day on Yom Kippur, he would take away the pandemic.”

Mentz has had to consider how the synagogue will react if any of its congregants refuse to comply with the safety measures. If anyone refuses to adhere, Mentz says, “we would first ask them to leave. And if not, then the entire service will be disbanded. We cannot let one person endanger everyone.”

Rabbi Wolpe of Sinai Temple says, at this point, everyone is just doing their best to figure out how to best celebrate while also keeping people safe.

“We’re all groping for the right way to do this. And, the spirit that we need most is the spirit that the holiday’s supposed to evoke, which is that of forgiveness,” Wolpe says. “It’s a spirit that is not rampant in our country right now. And in doing this, we are being somewhat countercultural. We’re trying to tell people, ‘As we ask God for forgiveness, we ask each other for forgiveness.’ We need it.”

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