High Holidays Especially Important to Diaspora Jewry This Year
For many Diaspora Jews Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur play a defining role in their Jewish identity. This year, Covid-19 restrictions endanger this connecting thread. Testimonies from shlichim across the globe.
By Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, Director of OTS’ Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Emissary Programs | 13 September, 2020
For many Jews in the Diaspora, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not only holy days in the Hebrew calendar, they are also central to defining Jewish life and their Jewish identity. Tens of thousands of Diaspora Jews assemble to hear the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, to hear Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur Eve, and to hear the closing prayer and final shofar blast as the fast ends.
Many of the Jews who attend synagogues in the Diaspora on Yom Kippur are not religious. On this holy day of the year, everyone – from the traditional to the secular – attends synagogue services in order to sit together. This includes the Jews who drive to synagogue and assimilated Jews who are married to non-Jews. There are also Jews who work on Yom Kippur and take a break to attend the main prayers, if only briefly.
These Jews do not necessarily come to pray, but to be part of the community. Some come to retain their Jewish identity at least on one day of the year, others come out of respect for their parents and nostalgia for their childhood memories. Some seek belonging, while others seek meaning. They come by choice, to express their identity. Diaspora Jews often feel lonely, alone. On Yom Kippur they want to take part, to feel they belong, to strengthen their personal identity by significant joining with the Jewish collective, if only briefly.
Having said that, even on the High Holy Days most Diaspora Jews do not attend synagogue. A recently conducted study of Jewish communities in Europe revealed that although about half a million Jews attend synagogue on the high holidays, twice as many as on Shabbat, some 70% of European Jews do not attend synagogue at all – not even on Yom Kippur.
A 2013 Pew Institute study carried out in the United States showed that one in four adult Jews attended services and religious events in synagogues at least once a week (11%), or between once and twice a month (12%). About a third (35%) attend synagogue several times a year, for instance during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Four out of ten rarely (19%) or never (22%) attend synagogue ceremonies. A study conducted in Canada showed that of the 180,000 Jews in Toronto, only 40,000 attend synagogue of any denomination on Yom Kippur.
Testimony from across the globe
This year, everything is complicated even more by Covid-19. To get a glimpse of the situation of Jewish communities before the High Holy Days, I’ve chosen to present quotes by the rabbis and emissaries of Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel programs for training emissaries for the diaspora. I asked them to describe their reality and the synagogue’s plans, each according to the situation in their own city and community:
Lima, Peru: “Unfortunately the public cannot attend services on the High Holy Days because of government regulations, so everyone will pray at home. Each family will receive a guidebook on how to pray at home.”
Turin, Italy: “Services will be held only at the Great Synagogue, while maintaining social distancing. Only 180 people will attend, instead of 800. We are considering holding two Ne’ila services in the square to provide solutions for more people.”
Florence, Italy: “The Great Synagogue will hold only 200 people this year even though there are 600 seats. Prior registration is required, and we will decide if to host two services for Rosh Hashanah according to the number of people who sign up. We are planning on having a children and parents prayer group at the end of the morning.”
Montevideo, Uruguay: “Only the main prayers will be said in synagogue – Rosh Hashanah evening prayers, Mussaf, and shofar blowing, and on Yom Kippur Kol Nidrei and Ne’ila. Each service will last an hour and a half only and the congregation will be divided into two halls.”
Glasgo, Scotland: “Many Jews prefer not to attend this year. Those who do come will have several parallel services in the same synagogue. Unfortunately, students will not have a place in the synagogue, as they are not community members.”
Nairobi, Kenya: “Each prayer will be only one hour long, and limited to ages 14 to 58. Many people will be praying alone in their homes.”
Barcelona, Spain: “Only a third of the congregation can pray in the synagogue – 150 out of 450 – therefor four services will be held in parallel. On Yom Kippur prayers will be conducted at the national theater, which has 1,500 seats, so people can be together while maintaining social distancing.”
Stuttgart, Germany: “Rosh Hashanah services require prior registration and social distancing. Masks will be replaced every two hours. On Yom Kippur services will be conducted in a large concert hall instead of at the synagogue.”
Copenhagen, Denmark: “There will be a shortened family prayer service on the afternoon of the second day of Rosh Hashanah.”
Omaha, Nebraska, USA: “Quite a few people chose not to come to services this year. We will pray in two tents (roof only, no walls) outside, and prior registration is required. Services will be shorter than usual and there will be a separate prayer service for children under twelve.”
London, England: “All services will be conducted, yet we will begin at ‘HaMelech’ and omit some of the piyyutim. Services are expected to last two hours and only the cantor will be allowed to sing. Children will not be allowed in the synagogue. We have 500 people in the community and only 180 have signed up for prayer services. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah there will be a ‘shofar event’ for adults at the soccer stadium.”
Palo Alto, California: “There will be shofar blowing in the parks for people who are unwilling or unable to come. We are preparing a cookbook ahead of time and an abridged prayer book with Divrei Torah for the congregation. We will also have a spiritually uplifting event beforehand through Zoom.”
Monterrey, Mexico: “The situation in the city is not good and people are afraid to go out. It is not yet clear if services will be held in the synagogue or in a more ventilated space. In the afternoon there will be shofar blowing for people who cannot attend services, in an open area in the community. We may conduct Kol Nidrei and Yizkor before Yom Kippur through Zoom.”
Durban, South Africa: “On the one hand people want to return to the synagogue, yet on the other hand they are concerned. We will conduct services of up to 50 people for no longer than two hours and we will also have shofar blowing in Jewish residential areas. We will also send cakes and balloons to community members, along with a newsletter with Kiddush and the simanim and ideas for Rosh Hashanah.”
Quito, Ecuador: “The synagogue will be closed. There will be services by Zoom two hours before the holiday and at the end of the holiday.”
Bogota, Columbia: “Everything is currently closed according to government regulations. We will try to hold services in private homes.”
Manchester, England: “Services will be held, with children permitted only from age twelve. Only the cantor will sing.”
Liverpool, England: “Only 30 shofar blasts will be conducted within the synagogue. There will be another 13 locations in which there will be shofar blowing during the day. Only the cantor may sing, and the choir will maintain 3m social distancing from one another. Children under twelve will not be allowed to attend. Attending Kol Nidrei will require prior registration. There will be room for only 100 people on a first come, first served basis. Yizkor will be held on Yom Kippur Eve through Zoom. There will be two rounds of services on the day itself so everyone will have an opportunity to commemorate their loved ones.”
Warsaw, Poland: “Up to 150 people will be able to attend services to maintain social distancing. There will be two rounds of Kol Nidrei, which will require prior registration, as will Ne’ila. Everyone who comes to services on Yom Kippur wants to be in the synagogue which is why there will be rounds of services.”
Paris, France: “The Grand Synagogue of Paris, la Victoire, contains 2,400 seats. This year up to 1,000 people can attend dependent on prior registration. There will be another two halls containing up to 100 people with services in the Jewish Egyptian and Jewish Tunisian traditions.”
Manila, Philippines: “Usually 200 people attend services during the holidays. This year only twenty people between the ages of twenty and sixty will be able to attend.”
The community rabbis are demonstrating creativity in contending with the difficulties that arise from these descriptions. They are doing everything possible according to halacha to retain not only the services themselves, but also the spiritual-social experience of the High Holy Days.
This year the High Holy Days will be difficult. We will witness an upside down world: synagogues that are closed or limit the number of attendees; many Jews who are afraid to go near the synagogues; small prayer services; people praying at home on their own; children, women, and older adults who will not be able to hear the shofar; prayers and shofar blowing over Zoom; prayers without the congregation singing. In many countries children and boys up to age thirteen will not be allowed to attend services.
Will one year without High Holy Day services cause Jews to distance themselves from tradition, or will it bring them closer? Will the distancing increase their longing, or will a state in which Jews have no shofar or Kol Nidrei become even more widespread in the Jewish world? The coming Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur may mark a watershed in the Jewish identity of many Diaspora Jews.