Unique High Holidays Test Jewish Tradition and Law

Photo by Noemie Taylor-Rosner / Temple Beth Israel
Rabbi Jason Rosner practices blowing a shofar in the hills behind Altadena. The shofar is used during services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Temple Beth Israel congregants will blow it Sept. 20 in various places that are home to congregants, including South Pasadena.

There are Christians who go to church only on Christmas and Easter.
There are Jews who go to temple or synagogue only on the High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
You know who you are.
It doesn’t make you less of a person. That’s just the way it is with you — or me.

Christians who follow the twice-a-year plan have lots of time between visits. Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — starts what are known as the Ten Days of Repentance, which end on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Rosh Hashanah this year begins the evening of Friday, Sept. 18, and Yom Kippur begins the evening of Sept. 27 and lasts one day. Some people celebrate Rosh Hashanah for two days.
The Ten Days of Repentance act as a time to ask for forgiveness for past deeds and to forgive others. They are also a period of introspection and an opportunity to change in the future.
This year, Rosh Hashanah kind of snuck up on me. And when I went to buy New Year’s cards, there wasn’t much of a selection.
My Jewish friends exclaimed, “Is it Rosh Hashanah already?”
That’s one reason the Jewish High Holidays are so unique this year.
“The High Holidays this year are a way of marking time,” said Rabbi Jason Rosner of Temple Beth Israel in nearby Highland Hills. “It seemed that months seemed to float from March through the summer and suddenly here we are at the days of atonement.”
And with that realization, many Jews are asking, “What do we do now?”
The COVID-19 pandemic has a way of initiating that question, and it has raised a multitude of questions about what to do now that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are around the corner.
For many Jews, the High Holidays were or are a time of families getting together — particularly on Rosh Hashanah. Now, be careful about hugging relatives, if they come at all. The Jewish delis that always draw a crowd are going to have to have people being socially distanced instead of pushing and shoving each other.
One thing that will not change is the fundamental meaning.
“On the High Holidays, there is atonement — both communal and personal — on where we may have missed the mark during the past year,” Rosner said.
“There is a personal examination of the personal and ethics. There is a recommitment to society, interaction and community.”
The story of Jonah, which is read during the High Holidays, is a reminder of this need to recommit.
“Jonah prayed to God from the belly of the fish,” Rosner explained. “Traditionally, this is when he accepts his prophetic mission and is transformed — when he realizes that he has obligations to others beyond himself.”
The pandemic, Rosner added, amplifies this story.
“We have been isolated and waiting for a moment to reunite to enact the changes we acknowledge we need to make in our society,” he said.
The meaning may be the same, but the way it is delivered will definitely be different. Temple Beth Israel has been celebrating its services on Zoom since March, and will do likewise during the High Holidays.
“It’s going to feel different, but we are a tight-knit community,” the rabbi explained of his congregation of about 200 people. “We are trying to pull everyone together and get everyone involved.”
Rosner will be reading from the Torah — the Five Books of Moses — which will be placed on his dining room table and others will join in the readings.
The rabbi noted that in the 200s the Torah was often read in the marketplace, so a dining room table wasn’t wrong.
Rosner said the congregation will probably choose to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, even though it requires a “minyan” — a group of 10 people. The Kaddish and Yizkor — a memorial service on the afternoon of Yom Kippur — will probably be presented as a group saying it out loud via Zoom.
And there are other prayers that require 10 people, but Rosner and the committee that is designing the service are determined to include those parts that are beloved to all who have attended in the past.
Rosner explained that God allows for extenuating circumstances and the intention counts.
“Kaddish has enormous emotional weight and to not say it might break the community apart,” the rabbi said. “It is the best we can do under the circumstances.”
The congregation, Rosner explained, is a mixture of Conservative, Reform and reconstructionist Judaism, and is not affiliated with any one denomination.
There is usually a charge for tickets to High Holiday services, but all are welcome to the Zoom service. Rosner estimated that about 95% of the congregation will attend services this way. He knows that some people will want to join in only for certain portions of the service.
“There has to be almost a production schedule so that people who go to the Zoom site will know when — for example — the children’s service might be starting and when it will end.
“I almost have to act as a timekeeper so that services will be held when they are supposed to be held,” Rosner said.
A much-anticipated part of both the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services is the blowing of the shofar, or ram’s horn. The temple will be working with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to provide shofar blowers on Sept. 20 in various cities — including South Pasadena — across the region.
Rosner noted that the temple was founded in 1923 by survivors of the Spanish flu pandemic.
And it is getting ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary with survivors of the COVID pandemic.
Both groups of survivors were inscribed in the Book of Life — on Yom Kippur, God seals the Book of Life, which determines who lives and who dies in the coming year.
May those who pray — by whatever means — have a happy and healthy year.
L’Shana Tova.

Editor’s note: For information about the schedule for Zoom or a webinar, visit the temple website at tbila.org/hhd.