How does one celebrate the Days of Awe when so much these days has been awful?
That is a question facing Jewish congregations and their rabbis as they approach Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins today at sundown, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins the evening of Sept. 27.
“We are entering year 5781 on the Hebrew calendar. Though I’ve only been around for 51 of those, I can’t help but think that few have been as challenging as 5780,” said Glenview resident Jonathan Schoenberg.
Congregations are finding new ways to address those challenges, in many cases by gathering people remotely or socially distanced in outdoor settings.
“It’s definitely been interesting and different,” said Rabbi Meir Moscowitz of Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook, which is in the minority this Rosh Hashanah by holding smaller, socially distanced services outdoors under an open-walled tent.
“We’ve been busier than ever,” Moscowitz said. “I feel that people very much want the connection, especially those that are home, and especially with the limitations on interacting with others.”
For those who are uncomfortable in a live setting, Moscowitz said a prayer book, “do-it-yourself guide” and children’s package also will be available for people to use at home.
A highlight of Rosh Hashanah, he said, is the sounding of the Shofar, or blowing into a ram’s horn, a tradition dating back millennia.
“The message of the Shofar is like a cry from the heart, like a child calling out for a parent,” Moscowitz said.
“That’s really what Rosh Hashanah is, that we connect from the essence, that we connect from the soul to God.”
Throughout Sunday afternoon, Moscowitz and a team of rabbis and volunteers will be making stops at locations throughout Northbrook to sound the Shofar.
People may simply gather, socially distanced, to hear it.
A list of locations is at NorthbrookShofar.com.
While several congregations also will host services under open tents and some may offer outdoor ceremonies, in most cases Rosh Hashanah services will be held remotely.
Rabbi Nancy Landsman of Congregation Ahavat Olam in Glenview finds a silver lining.
“Especially being that we’re virtual, the focus is on how wonderful it is that people all over the globe can be with us through the Zoom platform and celebrate the holidays with us,” she said.
Being an inclusive Reform congregation, she said, she feels glad to offer guidance to what she believes is a wider audience in the wake of COVID-19.
“Our Shabbat services through Zoom have been doing very well,” Landsman said.
Known as “the Singing Rabbi” after serving as a cantor for 30 years starting at B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim under the late Rabbi Mark Shapiro, she noted the importance “to think out of the box” in creating meaningful and captivating messages remotely. Shorter, too, to avoid screen fatigue.
She’s done educational and social programs, held online game nights, even had an event called “Comedy and Cocktails” in which congregants told jokes to each other.
“I feel like now we all need to laugh, we need to find joy,” Landsman said.
For the High Holy Days, “as I’m going to say in my message for Rosh Hashanah, I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact without dwelling on it that we are in a pandemic.”
She’ll likely touch on the divisiveness, the financial and emotional instability.
In the spirit of the holiday, though, it may well be a light touch.
“As a rabbi, it’s my place to uplift people,” Landsman said.
“I think we need to make the best of the situation that we’re all in, and there are still ways to be connected to a rabbi, to a congregation, through Zoom.”