September 9, 2020

Pandemic Makes High Holy Days A Challenge for Local Synagogues

By Anne Levin

In normal times, attending synagogue services is a focus of the Jewish High Holy Days. But these are not normal times.

The pandemic has forced houses of worship to get creative about how to observe Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, starting the night of September 18; and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which begins the night of September 27. Gathering en masse under one roof for the various services that mark the holidays is not an option this year.

Locally, observances will range from indoor services for very limited numbers to outdoor gatherings and, of course, Zoom. The traditional blasts of the Shofar, a ram’s horn that is blown in synagogue at different times during the holidays, will be heard outside instead.

“We’re having drive-in shofar services, where cars will be lined up in our parking lot,” said Rabbi Jordan Goldson of Har Sinai Temple in Pennington. The ram’s horn will sound on Saturday, September 12 from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. “The person blowing the shofar will be in the middle, and people can just roll down their windows to hear it. We’ll have loudspeakers if the weather cooperates.”

Goldson and colleagues have worked hard to make the best of this year’s unusual circumstances. Special programs for children, including a bedtime story, are all part of the equation. “All the major services will be virtual,” he said. “We have found ways to create shortened services, which are abbreviated to some extent. We’ve also created parts of services that will be broadcast at a certain time, and have been sent out to the congregation as recordings.”

Similar efforts are underway at The Jewish Center on Nassau Street, where a combination of live and pre-recorded services is planned. “We’re very fortunate to have Cheryl Mintz (longtime production stage manager at McCarter Theatre) to help us as our sort of creative director,” said Cantor Jeff Warschauer. “It is a real collaboration between lay people, clergy, and staff, and it will be creative and innovative. We’re hoping to make it meaningful for everyone despite the circumstances.”

Among those events is a tribute to late Rabbi Adam Feldman, who died of a heart attack last December at the age of 55. On Monday, September 28, the traditional “Yizkor” memorial service of Yom Kippur will be held at 5:30 p.m., beginning with a montage of photos of Feldman, sent in by members of the congregation, and set to music.

“This synagogue has really struggled to find its footing in the past nine months,” said Joel Berger, executive director. “He was here for 14 and a half years. This is an opportunity for people to honor and remember him, and share their thoughts and prayers.”

Congregants can hear the sounds of the shofar at The Jewish Center’s main parking lot on Sunday, September 13 at 12, 1, 2, 3, and 4 p.m. Cars can park in every other spot, and those attending can either stay in their cars of sit on lawn chairs, wearing masks. Alternatively, worshippers can listen by phone. Email to register.

At Temple Micah in Lawrenceville, the shofar will be part of a “drive-thru” event on Sunday, September 13 in the parking lot at 2688 Lawrenceville Road, from 2-4 p.m. Everyone stays in the car, but Rabbi Elisa Goldberg, religious school teachers, and board members will be on hand to say hello and hand out High Holiday bags. All services will be online. For information, visit

Also in Lawrence, Adath Israel is holding services both in person — limited to 25 at a time — and online. “We’ve offered members the choice to come into the sanctuary in these small numbers, because we have been having Shabbat services that way and it has worked out,” said Rabbi Benjamin Adler. “We’ve broken up holiday services into hour chunks. Some parts will only be on Zoom, some will be pre-recorded, and some in person. But there’s always a Zoom option.”

Planning this year’s services has been daunting, to say the least. “Some people are very excited,” said Adler. “They really want to come back to the sanctuary. Others are a little more hesitant, and they want to have a good experience at home. We want to accommodate everyone, and it is a major challenge to have a service that works both at home and on Zoom.”

“Yes, it is a challenge,” said Goldson. “But the liturgy is a tool that helps move us to create a feeling, and a theme, and action. We’ve had to restructure the use of that tool. So, everything is rethought. Everything is new. There might be parts of the service we’re not doing, and that may be striking to someone. But in the end, we’re creating experiences. The liturgy is being used as a tool within those experiences to get out of the holiday what we need to get out of it.”