Shanah Tovah U'metukah: Celebrate Rosh Hashanah safely
TORONTO -- Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown on Friday, will be very different this year for many families and synagogues around the world, as they look for ways to safely celebrate one of the most important holidays of the year during a global pandemic.
In Israel, the country faces a second nationwide lockdown amid another COVID-19 outbreak, just hours before Rosh Hashanah begins.
Closer to home, families are rethinking dinner gatherings. Many synagogues have remained closed over the last six months, conducting online services instead and will do so for the Jewish New Year as well.
At Adath Israel Congregation in Toronto, the synagogue can typically accommodate some 3,000 people at a time for services, while programming director Anna Gindin normally organizes Jewish high holiday events that draw upwards of 300 people.
This year, under the guidance of a medical advisory committee made up of doctors in their community, the synagogue will allow less than 200 people, chosen by lottery, to observe the holiday with in-person services this weekend. Attendees will then be split into smaller groups; a group of 50, for example, will gather in a space that can normally hold 1,000 people.
Last weekend, Gindin held a drive-through event for the community to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, where stations were set up along the synagogue’s spacious parking lot.
“People could stay in their car for different stations without getting out and they received something at every station or they got to experience something at every station,” Gindin told CTVNews.ca.
They gave out apples and honey, pomegranates, heard the rabbi blow the shofar and the cantor sing. There was one station where families could get out and take physically distanced photographs in front of a large backdrop image of the Wailing Wall.
It was a particularly appealing draw for young families or older seniors who are normally more cautious about leaving their homes during the pandemic, Gindin said.
“This was really a chance for them to get out and connect with the congregation,” she added.
LIMITING IN-PERSON SERVICES
“This is going to be the first year where we’re live-streaming our services so people can be encouraged to participate in the safety and in their comfort of their homes,” said Rabbi Jarrod Grover, of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto. There will be an in-person gathering this weekend as well, but numbers are limited to 50 and attendees must observe the gathering protocols for COVID-19.
The increasing case numbers makes Grover a little more nervous, however.
“Our number one concern is to make sure that the people who are gathered are doing so safely. We absolutely don’t want this weekend being an opening for virus transmission in the Jewish community,” Grover told CTV News Channel.
“I think all of us have a heightened awareness now of what’s at stake.”
In Montreal, public health officials have asked Jewish leaders to limit gatherings to just 50 people indoors this weekend, even though, officially, 250 people are allowed to gather in houses of worship.
Beth Israel synagogue in Cote-Saint-Luc, Montreal, is holding two services, one indoors and one in a tent, each with 100 people. Masks must be worn at all times, even in the tent, and the large spaces are set up to maintain distance, said Rabbi Reuben Poupko.
With the large number of people attending online, services can get glitchy, however -- screens freeze, connections are not always ideal. Synagogues like Shaare Zion hired a production company to ensure top-quality live streaming for the holiday services.
CELEBRATING SAFELY AT HOME
Rosh Hashanah is often celebrated with an intergenerational family dinner that includes grandparents and children. But with students going back to school and COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings still in place -- and even tightening again in some regions like Ontario -- many families are hesitant about getting together as usual.
“I have several friends that actually decided to hold outdoor meals just to help keep the distance. Traditionally it’s a dinner, so a lot of people are looking to do a lunch outside versus a dinner outside, so that’s one big difference,” said Gindin.
Here are some of the ways people are celebrating Rosh Hashanah safely:
• Have an outdoor lunch with family instead of indoor dinner
• Having a smaller and more intimate family meal instead
• If your level of observance allows, do family dinner over video chat
Staff and volunteers at the MADA Community Centre in Montreal, which normally hosts community dinners around the city for the Jewish new year, packed 5,000 meals instead this year, to be delivered to those who need it.
For Grover, this year’s new year message is especially appropriate.
“In the Jewish religion, the new year is more of a time for contemplation and reflection. You’re supposed to be really aware of the passing of time and that every day is given to us as a gift and you don’t know what tomorrow might bring,” he said.
“Some years, we can ignore that message, but this year it came true for all of us. We didn’t know what the last year was going to bring and we’re nervous about the surprises that might await us this year. So we respond to that by being grateful everyday for the gifts we do have.”
With files from Luca Caruso-Moro, Rob Lurie and Selena Ross in Montreal