MAHOPAC, N.Y. - It’s a phrase that’s uttered all too often these days: “These are uncertain times.” The pandemic has changed everything, from how we learn in school to how we dine out and how we worship.
With the Jewish High Holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah rapidly approaching, Rabbi Sarah Freidson of Mahopac’s Temple Beth Shalom has had to do some quick thinking to prepare for two of the most important events on the Jewish calendar.
“It’s been a real challenge,” she said. “But I have enjoyed the opportunity to be creative and innovative.”
Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement and falls on Sept. 27 this year; Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is celebrated Sept. 18-20.
“They are generally the biggest celebrations we have and with large in-person worship services and lots of activities for the kids,” Freidson said. “Think of it as Easter and Christmas being 10 days apart. But we couldn’t do it this year. We had to innovate.”
Earlier this summer, Freidson began looking for ways to keep the celebrations intact and her congregation’s spiritual needs satiated while still keeping everyone safe.
“The question I asked myself was what are we hoping to accomplish—what is the outcome we are trying to achieve?” she said. “We have people of all ages and different levels of religiosity, and it was important that we provide something for the Jewish community at large—especially during the pandemic.
“I did a lot of brainstorming and connected with colleagues across the world,” she continued. “I did a lot of collaboration with clergy on Facebook. That’s been very helpful and there was a sense of camaraderie that we didn’t always have.”
Freidson said she had to consider online productions of five main services: two morning services for Rosh Hashanah on the first and second days and three on Yom Kippur.
“Normally, we have the cantor Jake Feldman come in and read the prayers, and we will run services on the long side. But we knew that wasn’t going to work,” she said. “No one would tune-in to a four- or five-hour service on Zoom. That wouldn’t fly. So, we prerecorded these five services that are 60 to 90 minutes apiece. They are the highlights and we have a number of congregants introducing different prayers over Zoom.”
But to do a condensed version of the services featuring the highlights and congregants’ various intros, Freidson needed some editing help and technical wizardry.
“We hit the jackpot,” Freidson said. “One of our congregants, Andy Milkis, works in video production. He has put in countless hours and filmed us over two separate times along with the congregants, and he’s editing it all together. That is what will be shown for free on public-access TV and on our YouTube channel. Our members can also watch it in a Zoom meeting, so they can interact with each other while the service is going on.”
However, some Temple Beth Shalom members still wanted the traditional full-length services, and Freidson will produce those live via Zoom.
“They are the longer versions, more complete,” she said.
The temple will also produce teen activities on Zoom, including a discussion on a short film where they will delve into the themes of the high holidays.
But it doesn’t end there. There will also be live outdoor in-person activities, for members only, that includes one brief service and the traditional shofar (ram’s horn) blowing on Rosh Hashanah.
“They need to register for that, and the locations are secret because we can’t have a lot of people showing up,” Freidson said.
Also, as part of this year’s High Holiday celebrations, the temple will deliver gift bags to its community.
“The bags are filled with goodies and some of them are very practical, such as a packet of prayers and the schedule of events,” Freidson said. “Dried apples and a pot of honey and apple lollipops and a packet of questions to reflect on. There are candles because there is a tradition to light them before the holidays. Also, something playful, bingo cards with stickers, and they can use them while watching the services. Some things playful and some serious to celebrate the high holidays at home.”
Freidson said putting it all together has been a massive albeit satisfying undertaking.
“My living room and dining room are just full [with gift bag items],” she said. “It’s a labor of love. And I couldn’t have done it alone. It was a team effort with a lot of volunteers. And while we are sad it had to be done this way, there is always an opportunity.”