The high holidays

Rosh Hashanah celebration backgroundHigh holidays mark a new beginning – a time to reflect on the past year while subsequently looking forward as we start the next. This annual season is a true cornerstone of the wider Jewish community. A time of year that usually inspires the largest annual participation and synagogue turnout as we come together to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

It’s no surprise that this year the high holiday season will be sung to a slightly different tune. The Covid pandemic has forced change in the way that we imagine everything from grocery shopping to work meetings and this year’s high holidays services will be no different. But not all communities are viewing this seeming setback as a negative. While things will certainly be different this year, some are seizing upon this opportunity for innovation and transformation. Additions that will hopefully remain a community staple long after the time of social distancing.

The Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valley has long served as a linchpin for the wider Jewish community. This year the Jewish Federation is at the forefront of organizing a community wide high holiday collaboration where local synagogues can share ideas, content, and productions. In a phone call with Jason Moss, the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation, he explained the inspiration behind the community-wide plan to unite for this year’s high holiday season.

“In the past the Federation has always looked for ways to unite the community – especially around the holidays. In the past we’ve created resource guides but this year we are in unique territory and knew we wanted to do something more. The idea arose for the different synagogues to work together in various ways around the creation of a more meaningful service. Having joint S’lichot, a Kol Nidre with different cantors, and even developing a “how-do” series for the holidays highlight the fact that the community is rallying together to make this year’s high holidays as experiential as possible. We know that people may not be thrilled with the current situation but we wanted to ensure that we are able to help people make the most out of it.”

Judaism has a long tradition of innovation in response to tragedy. The Babylonian exile sparked the impetus for the creation of synagogues and even the idea that one could practice Judaism outside of the land of Israel centered around the temple. The destruction of the second temple and subsequent scattering of the Jewish people inspired the creation of the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism. Similarly, the explosion from Spain led many to the northern Israeli city of Tzfat where they would further develop and disseminate Jewish mysticism, known as Kabbalah. As no stranger to tragedy, Judaism is always looking for ways to turn negatives into positives.
In this light the Jewish community has always seen setbacks and hurdles as a springboard for change and renewal. This was the dominant sentiment that Rabbi Jonathan Kupitz focused on in a recent conversation:
“One of the major focuses of the high holidays this year is the resilience of both Judaism and the Jewish people along with humanity as a whole. We have the ability to overcome and respond to obstacles placed before us. Judaism and Jewish history teaches us that our reaction to an event is almost as important as the event itself.”
Highlighting this fundamental idea, Rabbi Kupitz went on to discuss how the community is using this time of social distancing as an opportunity:

“There is a history of collaboration in the area, generally centered around the Jewish Federation, but in the past it’s always difficult because of the geographic distance and scatteredness of our wider community. This year, as we move to an online format, the main barriers to coming together have come down. We’re really trying to cultivate an aura of interconnectedness during this time. If one local community produces something of values, why not share it with the wider community, especially if they may lack some of the necessary equipment and resources.”
The sense of intercommunity connectivity is something that Rabbi Kupitz hopes will far outlast the pandemic. In this sense, the difficulty of social distancing may very well inspire new communal norms and infrastructure that will bolster everyone’s experience.

In focusing on the communal wide specific aspect of this year’s high holidays, Rabbi Rick Schechter told me “I do believe it is community—our synagogue communities and the greater community to which we’re all dedicated—that now more than ever, gives us the strength, support, and resilience to endure–and perhaps even to flourish and thrive amid unprecedented times. So, by all of us coming together during these High Holy Days in warm, loving embrace—community with community, synagogue with synagogue, person with person—we can, I feel, experience our natural interconnectedness, and we can help nourish and renew each other for a good, sweet year.”
Talking with Rabbi Ralph Resnick I was able to get a similar sense of looking at the positives: “Our weekly shabbat services have actually allowed us to reconnect with old members that have since moved across the country. For many this time has actually strengthened the sense of community and also allowed for a wider turnout to online events”

Rabbi Resnick told me that he is happy that the community is coming together for various parts of the high holidays:

“One of the chief challenges is making services accessible and not too drawn out. The reality is that people have shorter attention spans for zoom calls and so it is crucial to work together in order to brainstorm creativity. Overall I just want to encourage the Jewish population to get involved in these challenging times. Find out when different synagogues are putting on different events and do your best to show up.”

When asked what particular message Rabbi Resnick was focused on this year he immediately mentioned the late John Lewis and his idea of “good trouble.” The idea that we challenge things that we care about in order to better it and make it perfect. Where do we as a community, Rabbi Resnick asked, need to cause good trouble the following year?

Led by the Jewish Federation, this year’s high holiday season will be one full of collaboration. In these uncertain times, community is more important than ever and the importance of this year’s high holiday season cannot be overstated. While there are plenty of negatives that can be highlighted in our current stage—community leaders are pushing for and leveraging the current situation for innovation, creativity, and collaboration. A high holiday season that can very well be looked back upon in future years as the start and springboard of a great communal project.

daniel levine is a contributing writer to jlife magazine.

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