Rabbi Johanna Hershenson’s Words of Hope
For rabbis all over the world, the month of August means time to prepare for the High Holy Days. Rosh Chodesh, the new moon indicating the Hebrew month of Elul has emerged, falls on August 20th. The ancient rabbis suggest that it is with the new moon of Elul that we begin preparing for the Jewish New Year. In this month we reflect and self-assess our own conduct during the past year in relation to personal and professional goals and the way we wish to present ourselves in the world.
No matter how hard we try to live as if life is normal, there is no doubt that the year 2020 has been wrought with challenges that have shaken us all. The Covid-19 pandemic has kept many of us home-bound. Management of how to respond to it has opened social and political wounds that keep us in a state of divisive discourse. At the same time, we’ve been called to reckon with inequity in our political system. We’ve witnessed disproportionate police violence used against people of color and other disenfranchised communities. In place of a shared discourse around challenges and opportunities, we find ourselves so divided that which media outlet one receives news from often dictates how we engage in conversation with one another or opt to avoid the discomfort altogether and not talk about it at all.
As a rabbi, I am finding myself challenged in ways I’ve never been challenged before. It is clear that we will not gather for welcoming in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur together in synagogue, or “chemple”, in our case. While I look forward to the liturgy and music of our High Holy Day services every year, this year I wonder how to present the beauty of our tradition in a manner that moves us to introspection and optimism.
In large urban synagogues the decisions are relatively easy. There are membership numbers and subsequent temple budgets that warrant professionally live-streamed services that are beautiful to watch. Like you, I have viewed streamed services from our country’s largest congregations like Beth Am in Palo Alto, and Shaarei Tefillah and B’nai Jeshurun in New York. Cameras move from rabbi to cantor to lay leader seamlessly. Institutional internet bandwidth allows streaming and shared videos to flow and not lag.
As we have explored Zoom and YouTube and other options for streaming content, our experience suggests that as a smaller congregation (both in numbers and budget) we will best accommodate our High Holy Days experience with more radically creative options. Hopefully, that will not set us up for the hiccups we have done our best to manage during Shabbat and Adult learning Zoom gatherings. Streaming without lags requires a certain internet bandwidth that I cannot guarantee either at home or from my office.
In order to deliver the majesty and beauty of the High Holy Days, I am working with our president, Sheila Luber, our program coordinator, Lauralei Garrity, our High Holy Days coordinator, Kathy Schindel, and a team of volunteers with tech know-how to prepare a High Holy Day season of offerings that allow for passive enjoyment of the season as well as opportunities to hear the shofar and gather safely and responsibly.
As the month of August unfolds, watch for information about how we will celebrate the New Year upon its arrival the evening of September 18th. Our main services Erev Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah morning, Kol Nidrei, and Yom Kippur will be released to members as short films at the times we are accustomed to gathering for in-person services. Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur morning film releases will be followed by Torah Study and Discussion on Zoom, where we can interact and share thoughts, feelings, and new year’s wishes and concerns. On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, we will bring our shofar and birdseed to Pioneer Park and invite members to come by to hear the sounding of the shofar and take a personal moment at the river for letting go of the past year’s regrets.
This year’s High Holy Days will feel different than they’ve ever felt before. My promise to you is that I will do my best to make lemonade from the lemons with which we’ve been dealt. Our short films will include newly recorded music from our ensemble (Julie Geveshausen, Jo Booser, Eileen Heaton, and Janet Gesme, as well as artwork and photography by our members. I invite every Temple Beth Tikvah household to record a 2-minute message for the New Year and send it to me so that we can see each other in our High Holy Days short films. Instructions will be sent out shortly if you have not received them already.
It is my hope that because we cannot do what we normally do, and instead do something totally different, we will find joy and inspiration and creativity, which will bring us emotionally closer to one another in the midst of ongoing physical distancing practices.