The resurgence of COVID-19 and the spread of the contagious Delta variant are causing Evanston synagogues to change how High Holy Day services will be held next month.
“We need to re-create and adapt to the reality” of the health and safety situation, says Rabbi Rachel Weiss of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation.
Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) traditionally draw large numbers of congregants to houses of worship.
But all of JRC’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services this year will be entirely on Zoom, or outdoors with simultaneous social media access, depending on the day.
“It’s really sad” for the 400-household congregation not to be in the synagogue at this most sacred time of year, Weiss says. “But we are a multi-generational congregation, and it’s not safe to have large crowds indoors” due to the virus, she adds.
Jewish holidays begin at sunset. For Rosh Hashanah, that’s Monday, Sept. 6.
JRC’s service that evening will be entirely outside. Weiss says, “We will sing our way from Lee Street Beach to Clark Street.” sounding the shofar seven times along the way.
The shofar is a ram’s horn which tells those who hear it “to awaken to the new year,” Weiss explains.
“This is a year when celebrating community is essential,” she says.
Beth Emet, a Reform congregation, is having indoor services as of now, but with strict limits on the number of people allowed in, as well as having other health and safety regulations.
Because of COVID-19, Beth Emet is restricting indoor services to 300 people (about 30% of capacity) in the Sanctuary, as well as requiring those inside to be fully vaccinated. Seating will follow social distancing guidelines.
Beth Emet had already implemented a mask mandate before Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered one for indoor activities. Services will be live-streamed online as well.
Singing plays a major role in High Holiday services. On its website, Beth Emet explains that the cantor will be singing live in the Sanctuary, and for those attending in person, “congregants are permitted to sing, with their masks on.”
Beth Emet’s services will be live-streamed as well, as they have been since the start of COVID-19. “One positive benefit during the pandemic,” the congregation’s website states, “was the incredible connection we have maintained, and in many ways, grown via remote services.”
Beth Emet is also leaving open the possibility of changing its current plans. In a Q and A on the website, it says, “We continue to evaluate the guidance” from health agencies and Jewish institutional organizations. “We appreciate your patience,” the site continues, “as we navigate this together.”
Togetherness as a community is a key component of the High Holy Days. Finding a way to worship during a pandemic, says JRC’s Weiss, “is a way to meet the essential pieces of the holidays.”
Rosh Hashanah (Evening of Sept.6, Days Sept. 7 and 8)
Yom Kippur (Evening of Sept. 15, Sept. 16 Day).