The new Jewish year of 5782 begins Monday at sunset, and America’s Jews anticipate a cautious return to in-person celebrations of Rosh Hashana, Hebrew for “Head of the Year,” one leader said last week.
Holiday gatherings and festivities are expected to be tempered by ongoing COVID-19 worries as well as concerns about a rise in antisemitic attacks around the globe.
“There’s a stronger sense of confidence which has been created by the vaccine, hopefully not confidence without proper caution at the same time,” Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Baltimore said in an interview. “Synagogues in our network by and large are getting together” for in-person worship, he added, often with more services to allow for greater social distancing by congregants.
Rosh Hashana begins what Jewish people term the “High Holy Day” season, culminating in Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement” and Sukkot, the “Feast of Booths” commemorating God’s provision during 40 years of wandering in the desert after leaving slavery in ancient Egypt.
Rabbi Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, which bills itself as the nation’s oldest and largest umbrella organization for the Orthodox Jewish community in North America. As of 2019, the group reports 24,000 congregants in 400 congregations, though the number continues to grow, the group said. Rabbi Hauer said the larger Orthodox Jewish community contains “several thousand” congregations, however, not all are formally affiliated with the group.
“But in a certain sense, we all are together and share ideas and protocols and communications,” said the former senior rabbi of Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion in Baltimore.
During the pandemic, virtual meetings have been the dominant means for worship, but there is no substitute for in-person fellowship, Rabbi Hauer said.
“In the Jewish tradition, there are many prayers we can only say when we have a minyan, when we have 10 people together in a room,” the rabbi said, referring to the required quorum of 10 men over the age of 13 required for public worship.
“Much was written during the early stages of COVID, about how the Orthodox virtual services were not able to be ‘real’ services because the Orthodox didn’t say Kaddish on Zoom,” he said, referring to the Jewish prayer for the dead.
“Getting together in a room where voices are raised together in unison in prayer and the like, it’s not comparable” to livestreaming, Rabbi Hauer said. “A community that’s physically together is where real community is expressed. We were not created to interact by FaceTime,” he added.
Asked if he anticipated a flurry of political messages in Orthodox pulpits this season, Rabbi Hauer said he believes the focus will be on hope and comfort.
“I think that there will be many, many messages of encouragement,” he said. “The world is tired of disease, and it’s tired of natural disasters, and it’s tired of violence and strife. And people come home to the synagogue, they come home to faith, they come home to the holidays, they come home to get perspective and to get strength.”
Rabbi Hauer acknowledges concerns over antisemitism and potential attacks at congregations that are highly visible during the High Holy Days.
The Oct. 27, 2018, mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, which left 11 people dead and six wounded, convinced many congregations to work more closely with local law enforcement on security.
The Associated Press last week reported the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County in Florida offered “trauma kits” that included bandages, gloves, burn-care gel, and other supplies in order to aid in treating serious injuries before first responders can arrive.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, Rabbi Hauer said, security concerns have “grown dramatically to occupy by a huge space in planning and budgeting, in emotional preparation for what it means to be a house of faith in the American Jewish community. It’s tragic that it’s a preoccupation.”