When congregations across the North Shore closed in March, they didn’t know how long their doors would remain shut. Now, with the High Holidays approaching and the coronavirus pandemic continuing, local religious leaders are making plans for a most unprecedented start to 5781: Most services will be held online.
Because of the recent increase in Covid-19 cases in Massachusetts, plans call for Rosh Hashanah (Sept 18-20) and Yom Kippur (Sept. 27-28) services to be held virtually, a stark difference from sanctuary gatherings that usually attract thousands on the High Holidays.
“For a lot of people, it will be a new experience to have the High Holidays online,” said Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott.
Of the seven spiritual leaders interviewed by the Jewish Journal for this article, five said they are holding High Holiday services online. Chabad of the North Shore is currently planning outdoor services in Swampscott while providing alternatives for individuals who do not wish to attend in person. The Alevy Family Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center is planning both an indoor service and outdoor options. Two temples – Tiferet Shalom in Peabody and B’nai Abraham in Beverly – did not respond to inquiries from the Jewish Journal.
In Marblehead, Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El said the decision to hold virtual High Holiday services was “not a surprise to anyone.”
In a normal year, Emanu-El would hold six services on Yom Kippur, each one geared to different groups, with the largest such gathering drawing between 900 to 1,000 attendees.
“Obviously there’s no way to do that safely indoors,” Meyer said.
In an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Governor Charlie Baker last week reduced the limit on outdoor gatherings from 100 to 50 people. The limit for indoor gatherings remains at 25 people.
At Temple Sinai in Marblehead, the leadership initially hoped to have hybrid High Holiday services, but that didn’t work out due to state regulations, according to Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez.
Instead, Temple Sinai decided to have live-streamed services over a shorter time period.
“We will adapt the service, cutting here and there – it’s very painful,” Cohen-Henriquez said. “[For] some parts and tunes, people come once a year … [Deciding] what to include and take out [took] some time.”
There will be one in-person event, a Tashlich service on the beach with a shofar blast and “the most important Rosh Hashanah songs,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi Yossi Lipsker of Chabad of the North Shore said the current plans are to hold outdoor services in Swampscott. He noted that these plans are “not concrete yet.”
At the moment, Chabad in Swampscott aims to hold “multiple outdoor services options,” Lipsker said, adding that all will “adhere to social distancing guidelines” and require sign-ups.
“We might be having a more traditional, somewhat truncated, abbreviated traditional service in the morning,” Lipsker said, “do that perhaps two to three times in the course of the morning, then plan to do something as well later in the morning or early afternoon, for a more child, family-friendly [experience].”
The rabbi said “If someone can’t make it to the alternatives we are offering this year and remains at home, we are going to be offering [options] for people to do, to the best of their ability, to be able to observe the High Holidays in their own homes.”
Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of the Alevy Family Chabad of Peabody is currently planning four separate services for the High Holidays: a small, traditional indoor service and three other services, all in an outdoor tent: a morning service, a second service, and a family service led by Schusterman’s wife, Raizel Schusterman. All services will have masks and social distancing and attendance will be capped at each.
“We think it’s important to have an in-person option available for people,” Rabbi Schusterman said. “We don’t have Zoom on Shabbat or holidays. Zoom is not an option for us.” Noting that “many prefer” a traditional service, he said, “We see it as part of our mission for those who feel comfortable with it.” However, he added, “Elderly or otherwise compromised people should consider not participating until [things are] more under control or there’s some kind of vaccine.”
Other North Shore synagogues will welcome The Year 5781 virtually – including Temple Ner Tamid of Peabody and Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.
Rabbi Richard Perlman of Ner Tamid noted that the virtual services have the support of the majority of congregants. He said that when congregants were surveyed last month, almost three-quarters were comfortable with the idea.
He said that he has explained to the congregation “the difficulty of bringing hundreds of people into the building,” noting the state’s restricted occupancy rules. Beyond that, he said, other issues arose, such as restroom access and entering and exiting the building.
Perlman indicated that if coronavirus cases do not go up in Massachusetts, there might be a possibility of a soft opening for Shabbat later this year. However, he said, “the High Holidays this year are out of the question.”
At Gloucester’s Ahavat Achim, Rabbi Steven Lewis explained the plan to hold virtual services on the synagogue website, punctuated by a shofar blast. “We’ll try to find ways for people to connect to the community, even though we’re not physically together,” Lewis said.
He noted that “in a real, physical service, people have all sorts of interactions,” including talking to people and sitting next to them.
“You lose all that,” he said of the online experience.
Some synagogues also are wrestling with the economic impact of the shutdown and the loss of membership dues and tzedakah during a normal High Holidays season.
Ahavat Achim follows a voluntary dues model and has never sold High Holiday tickets. “It’s less of an issue for Ahavat Achim than it might be for other congregations where the High Holidays are an important feature of the budget,” Lewis said.
At Temple Sinai, Cohen-Henriquez said that while things are “worrisome,” he’s hopeful people will purchase tickets for the online services as if it’s a donation.
“The reality is that many, many temples have a huge, big percent of their income from the High Holidays – 50 percent sometimes, from sales on tickets or renewals of membership, usually around Rosh Hashanah,” Cohen-Henriquez said. “It affects many temples if people don’t sign up and contribute as a donor for High Holiday tickets this year.”
Asked about such concerns, Lipsker said, “A lot of that remains to be seen. As we start getting closer to a season that is traditionally a season of tzedakah, obviously Jewish organizations are the recipients of that tzedakah. I certainly would hope those in a position to contribute or do tzedakah will hopefully do so this year.”
In the end, there are other concerns that outweigh financial ones, said Ragozin of Shirat Hayam. Although he said “We hope people will respond very generously,” he also said it has been a difficult time for many because of Covid-19.
“I think there is going to be a deep sense of loss,” Ragozin said. “The question is, can we create something new … through the use of virtual services?