With High Holiday services streaming online during the COVID-19 pandemic, getting into the mood to pray for a good year on Zoom may pose a challenge for you at home.
Some rabbis said while the experience may not be the same as being in shul surrounded by familiar faces, that doesn’t mean it can’t be as special.
“Almost everyone will be experiencing High Holiday services from their own homes this year and there are some strategies for making the most of this unusual situation,” said Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.
Meyer and Rabbi Alison Adler of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly both suggested creating a set location in your home for services as a way to create a sacred space to pray.
Meyer suggested setting aside a place that is quiet, with a display of some Judaica from your home.
“We are encouraging people to set up and create their space with some intention,” Adler said.
If you have your computer out on a table, why not add a tablecloth? she asked.
She said the sages taught us that the tables in our homes are like altars and that our homes are a mikdash me-at, a little sanctuary.
“After the destruction of the temple,” Adler said, “it was considered our homes are a sanctuary.”
Adler suggested setting up the prayer area in a comfortable spot in the house other than the home office or kitchen. The space also may become a place for weekly Shabbat services or daily prayers.
Meyer suggested that on the High Holidays, you cut out online distractions, “closing out what is really annoying social media.”
Both Adler and Meyer said you should sing along with the streaming services as best you can.
Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, who leads Chabad of the North Shore, believes that Jews who pray in their home this year might glean more when they read the traditional liturgy in the High Holiday prayer books.
“The passion, the depth of the liturgy, is often lost communally, so to a large degree the silence that is so glaring in the absence of community helps us to push inward, and it’s an opportunity to pray with a very deep and profound consciousness,” said Lipsker.
For those who do not read the traditional High Holiday prayers, Lipsker encouraged people to pray directly to God, anyway.
“If a person is freestyling and it takes them to a deep spiritual place, then they should go with it; and don’t let anyone tell you that your genuine desire to pray in a way that you know and that you’re moved to pray is not valid,” he said.
Dressing up will enhance the experience
“I’m not saying that you should dress in your temple best,” Meyer said.
Adler said you should dress as if you were going to shul, and if it’s part of your tradition, don a yarmulke and/or tallit.
The High Holidays prayer book, the machzor, is filled with alternative readings, and if you are not following along with every word of the service, Adler said that’s OK, too.
“Whatever page you are on, it’s where you need to be,” Adler said.
Meyer said there is a difference when it comes to praying alone and praying in a community setting. Both are important to the Jewish faith.
Mystics saw praying in solitude as “part of the tool kit for spiritual elevation,” Meyer said. While the minyan and prayer in the synagogue during the holidays are important, it’s not exclusive of needing time to pray alone.
To get its congregation used to praying online, Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody made the decision back in June that its High Holiday services would be streamed on Zoom, said Rabbi Richard E. Perlman.
Holding services online earlier in the year gave the congregation a feeling of what the High Holidays might be like.
Making the Zoom services as interactive as possible was another way Perlman hoped to enhance the service.
“What works for me, my congregation, is interactivity,” Perlman said. That means congregants on Zoom will be taking part in High Holiday readings. “I want people to feel as much as possible they are in shul,” Perlman said.
Even Perlman, who is also Ner Tamid’s cantor, said it took him time to become comfortable davening remotely.
But as time went on, it became a natural thing to do, and so did the usual chit chat online with members just before the services started. Now, he’ll daven on a Friday night, chant the Hashkiveinu, close his eyes, and pray.
While he won’t be unmuting people on Zoom during the upcoming holidays, his congregants insist on being heard. He’s recorded some of the cacophony and someday, he said, he wants to release those greatest hits.
“I call it the ‘aleinu mish mash,’” joked Perlman.
“But they love it because they feel like it’s being heard.”
Jewish Journal Editor Steven Rosenberg contributed to this report.