Jewish High Holy Day services modified to keep congregants safe amid pandemic

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CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — The Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, begins at sundown Friday night leading into Yom Kippur at the end of the month.

The two High Holy Days are the most important Jewish worship days of the year and will be far from traditional this fall.

Social gathering limits are still in place, and religious services are still expected to be modified to keep congregants safe.

In Rhode Island, Phase III guidelines for religious and faith-based organizations say “live streaming or broadcasting of services is strongly recommended as a safer alternative to in-person gatherings.”

Places of worship are only allowed to hold 66% or less of the area’s maximum occupancy level or the number of people who can maintain a minimum of six feet of distance between groups. Places of worship can also only have up to 125 people in the building, in accordance with the statewide rule for indoor gatherings.

Brian Sullivan, Chief Brand Officer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, tells 12 News most congregations have come up with their own plans to observe the High Holy Days.

Sullivan says some are opting for virtual services or socially distant services outside, while others are traveling the state to bring certain traditions directly to their congregants.

At Temple Sinai in Cranston, weekly services have not been held in-person since March, but instead, over video conferencing platforms. Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser says Temple Sinai’s Passover seder over Zoom actually turned out to be one of the more popular services.

“People really loved being able to sit around their dining room table with the entire Temple Sinai community,” Goldwasser said.

He adds the holiday’s community aspect won’t change just because the services have to.

“We certainly would never choose to do it this way, but if this is what we’ve got, we want to do it in the way that is most meaningful and in the way that takes advantage of what the media offers,” Goldwasser said.

Friday night, Rosh Hashanah services will be virtual with another seder via Zoom, which will include traditional music.

On Saturday afternoon, there will be a live, in-person “drive-through” shofar service, in addition to a socially-distanced tashlikh service at Goddard Park Beach.

The calls from the shofar fulfill the religious duty on Rosh Hashanah, but even that will be altered to keep in accordance with COVID-19 health protocols.

“We’re also going to be putting a mask on the mouth of the shofar so we’re not creating aerosols,” Goldwasser said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states for events and gatherings, “masks are strongly encouraged in situations where people might raise their voice (e.g., shouting, chanting, singing).”

CDC considerations for community-based organizations also ask to “consider temporarily suspending musical performances that involve singing or playing wind instruments. If such events are held, musicians should be spaced as far apart as feasible, ideally farther than 6 feet apart.”

Rabbi Barry Dolinger serves as Rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence, in addition to serving on the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.

In an email to 12 News, Dolinger says in regard to singing and the spread of aerosols, “it’s imperative that leaders and individuals treat this aspect of the spread seriously.”

“This is probably one of the most likely ways a high holiday service could become a super-spreader event and there are tangible steps we can all take to limit the risk,” he continued.

Dolinger also claims the shofar produces more aerosol output compared to singing.

“It’s crucial to blow the shofar away from people, stand far away, note the wind direction, get a COVID test for the shofar blower if possible, and to put a mask on the end of the shofar, or some efficacious combination of these steps,” Dolinger said.

The modifications will continue through Yom Kippur at the end of the month, with more virtual services at Temple Sinai. Goldwasser says the annual kid’s service inside the synagogue can’t occur on Yom Kippur this year.

The event, held for children in kindergarten or younger, involves storytelling, singing, and sharing traditional snacks of apples and honey.

Temple Sinai’s religious school will also be held virtually, to start.

“I’ll certainly say that the Jewish community is looking forward to a much better 5781 than 5780 turned out to be,” Goldwasser said.

In Providence, Temple Beth-El celebrated with in-person celebrations involving apple picking and shofar blowing, but will be worshiping Rosh Hashanah digitally, according to Rabbi Sarah Mack.

“Our live stream is open to all who wish to join our worship. We have included the voices of our community in choral videos and peerage segments,” Mack said.

The temple did reach out to congregants by phone, and there will also be a Zoom “meet and greet” following services.

Mack says the temple also has holiday bags with gifts to assist with at home worship.

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