Synagogues adapt High Holiday traditions for the pandemic

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When you think of High Holidays, you may picture large family gatherings, hugging neighbors and sharing food with friends. This year, synagogues have to adapt their community traditions to a new reality.

Going an extra mile for the big picture

B’nai Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue located downtown, is adjusting its plans for the holidays. The synagogue will use the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s courtyard and parking lot for in-person services.


Bolton Street Synagogue, a Reform community downtown, will miss the 300 people that usually gather for their High Holiday services. Instead, the synagogue will have shortened High Holiday services and online social programs. They invite members to send in 30-second clips to wish a Shabbat Shalom, and the synagogue will send goodie bags with a plastic shofar, honey cake recipe and new prayer book.

The sanctuary at Bolton Street Synagogue, which recently affiliated with the Reform movement. (Adam Barry)
The sanctuary at Bolton Street Synagogue (Adam Barry)

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Pikesville, usually anticipate 2,000 people at their High Holiday services. The congregation of 1,200 families is focused on making sure its members are supported, as many of them face financial challenges. The congregation will have virtual services and continue online programming to keep everyone connected. The synagogue also allowed for families to schedule times to visit the sanctuary. It will loan prayer books out to replace the usual spiritual discussions it has in-person. To adapt to the usual youth social gatherings, BHC will engage kids and teens through Zoom events.

Reimagining the details

Synagogues are still trying to figure out how to arrange specific customs. For example, singing with masks on is not exactly an option. B’nai Israel solved this solution by limiting choir numbers, while other synagogues had to cut music entirely out of in-person services.

Bolton Street Synagogue President Elaine A. Richman will miss the music during their Yom Kippur service. However, her synagogue will have a recorded option for people to access.

In addition, Bolton Street will have a family service to replace kids coming up to the bima during the shofar blowing.

Specifically, shofar blowing can be difficult to plan, but most synagogues are working around it. For example, B’nai Israel will still hold a formal shofar blowing, except they will cover the opening of the shofar, where the sound emerges, with a face mask.

Changes in the community spirit

Despite these changes, what community members have lost the most is the overall feel of the holidays, rather than any of these specific moments.

At B’nai Israel, where some members have moved outside of the city to stay with their parents, Rabbi Etan Mintz said he will miss having everyone together.

“I will miss those congregants who are not able to join us in person this year,” he said. “I will miss the full sanctuary and the feeling of the entire community gathering together. But I also am looking forward to connecting with each and every member of our community before, during and after the holiday, either in person, by phone or virtually.”

B’nai Israel is one of many synagogues, in addition to Bolton Street and Baltimore Hebrew, that are making phone calls to congregants to stay connected. However, a phone call can only go so far.

“The ability to see everyone’s faces will certainly impact the community,” said Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. “We want to bridge that gap.”

Richman said the key for Bolton Street is to stay focused and keep spirits high.

“Every synagogue has its own character. We have a very optimistic point of view, with lots of social action going on, and we address the world like a family. [Our] Rabbi Andy Gordon is a quiet, charismatic leader, who leads with generosity and love and spirituality. And my philosophy is don’t worry until you have something to worry about. So as combined forces, we’re doing well for the congregants,” Richman said. “They do miss being with each other. The holidays would be fantastic if we could do them as usual. But we’re going with the flow.”

Richman hopes the community uses the time as a learning period.

“As Jews, we’ve celebrated the High Holidays in a fashion that we repeat around the globe for, how long? But how this experience will influence the future I believe will be different,” Richman said. “It will remind us how we can’t assume things to be a given. We can have richer experiences while also missing something we value. It’ll be very interesting to see what we take in the future.”

Mintz said that this experience will allow for opportunities to reflect on resilience.

“It also teaches us the power of resilience,” he said. “Life is not always [easy], and it can bring many challenges. But with God’s help, and human grit, we persevere.”

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