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Prayer amid pandemic: As Rosh Hashanah approaches, Jews adjust to worshiping in ways that keep them safe

Rabbi Robert Goldstein of Andover's Temple Emanuel will lead an in-person Tashlich service at the Merrimack River.
Rabbi Robert Goldstein of Andover's Temple Emanuel will lead an in-person Tashlich service at the Merrimack River.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

On Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the shofar, an ancient instrument made from a ram’s horn, traditionally calls Jews to pause, look inward, and repent for the sins of the past year.

“The shofar calls to us on the most personal level,” said Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, director of Chabad Lubavitch of the North Shore in Swampscott.

Yet this year, blowing the shofar presents a risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus by releasing small droplets into the air. While Lipsker’s congregation plans to perform the ritual outside at a safe distance to celebrate the Jewish New Year, some congregations will switch to a prerecorded shofar. Still others have embraced a low-tech solution.

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“We learned that covering the end of the shofar with a mask greatly reduces the risk of virus transmission,” said Rabbi Andrea Gouze of Temple Beth Emunah in Easton. “I will blow the shofar with the end covered, outdoors far enough away to be safe, but close enough to be clearly heard.”

How to sound the shofar is just one of many challenges facing congregations amid the pandemic as they prepare to celebrate the holiest days of the Jewish calendar: from the start of Rosh Hashanah at sunset Friday, Sept. 18, to the close of Yom Kippur at nightfall on Sept. 28.

“Preparing for the holidays this year has been an adventure, but also an opportunity,” said Rabbi Laura Abrasley of Temple Shalom, a reform congregation in Newton. “Judaism has always evolved. We may be at another crossroads.”

In any other year, synagogues would be filled with worshipers during the High Holidays. This year, most rabbis will be leading services remotely or outdoors to protect their congregants from COVID-19 and to follow the state guideline limiting the number of people who can attend indoor gatherings.

“This is not the first time the Jewish community cannot enter the house of worship,” said Lipsker of the Hasidic Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch. “We need to prepare and be creative to empower people to be more capable of owning their own spirituality.”

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Rabbis have been meeting with lay boards and members to develop plans that meet the spiritual and safety needs of their community as well as expand technical abilities when possible.

Rabbi Andrea Gouze of Temple Beth Emunah in Easton will cover the end of the shofar to prevent a spread of germs during the High Holidays.
Rabbi Andrea Gouze of Temple Beth Emunah in Easton will cover the end of the shofar to prevent a spread of germs during the High Holidays.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“It is important to get everyone’s perspective and input and meet their spiritual needs,” explained Gouze of Temple Beth Emunah, a conservative synagogue that will have a brief Tashlich/Shofar Service outdoors and conduct the rest of the High Holiday services on Zoom. (Tashlich — during which a person’s sins are symbolically cast into a flowing body of water — is being held on Sunday, Sept. 20 this year by most synagogues because the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.)

“Looking at new ways of worshiping and embracing creativity has been a blessing,” said Gouze. “It is about balancing tradition with technology. Being in a temple surrounded by other members is a different experience than participating via a live stream.”

Planning for the High Holidays in the middle of a pandemic came on suddenly for Passover during the early months of COVID-19 in April. Scientific understanding of the virus is advancing, and with it comes new recommendations for public safety. In early August, the state limit for outdoor gatherings was lowered from 100 to 50 people, while indoor gatherings remained capped at 25 people.

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“Key has been being nimble,” said Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah, a reform temple in Lexington. “We knew the situation could potentially change before the holidays.”

Temple Isaiah usually has 1,000 to 1,200 worshipers attending services at Rosh Hashanah, according to Jaffe. This year, services will be streamed online.

“Planning since early summer has included a congregational survey to ensure that our members knew to expect change and that their voices were important in shaping the High Holy experience,” said Rachel Hayes of Arlington, president of Temple Isaiah.

“This is a critical time in the Jewish year and a time in which ritual and personal connection are so central,” said Hayes. “There is nothing like a service in which nearly 1,000 people come together in one space to pray, sing, and connect to their history and faith.”

Although they share a Jewish identity, each branch of Judaism has its own interpretations of Jewish law and traditions. Recognizing those fundamentals has been key in planning alternatives for the High Holiday services.

Chabad laws, for example, do not allow the use of technology on Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur.

“We have pivoted to outdoor services,” said Lipsker, of the Swampscott Chabad. “We will divide our large campus into sections to provide shorter, abbreviated services throughout the day. We are offering a whole menu of options from sunrise to evening services.”

For those who can’t attend the in-person services, Chabad Lubavitch has been providing workshops that will “empower them to conduct their own services at home,” according to Lipsker.

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At Temple Emanu-El, a reform congregation in Marblehead, Rabbi David Meyer will lead all services via online platforms.

“We have learned a lot by live-streaming weekly Shabbat services,” said Meyer. “Our services are real and remote, not virtual. We have found it to be comforting to members to see me lead services from our sanctuary.”

Rabbi Robert Goldstein of Temple Emanuel, a reform congregation in Andover, has developed a plan encompassing live-streaming services, some prerecorded materials, and a brief, limited in-person Tashlich service where members will symbolically cast off their sins of the previous year into the Merrimack River.

“I take a positive outlook that this pandemic has renewed our appreciation of our homes as a sacred space,” said Goldstein. “Through the miracle of Zoom, members can worship in the intimacy of their homes this year while sharing the live experience with their community.”

Nevertheless, celebrating the holidays at a physical distance is a difficult adjustment for many.

“There is a tremendous sense of loss in not being with our temple family in person,” said Beverly Strumpf of Brockton. A member of Temple Beth Emunah since 1975, Strumpf will participate in services via Zoom this year.

“Trained to bring people together, I need to consider the social-emotional health of people during the pandemic. We must acknowledge that there is an ongoing loss of not being together,” said Rabbi Abrasley of Temple Shalom. “At the same time, the High Holidays are about introspection, reflection, and checking your soul.”

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Innovation, technology, and the sound of the ram’s horn come together this year through The Greater Boston Shofar initiative, a joint project of the Chabad centers of Greater Boston that is committed to making hearing the shofar live available to every Jew.

Via the website www.greaterbostonshofar.com, Jews can request a volunteer to come and sound the shofar at a location near them.

“Already we have scheduled the shofar at 28 locations in Greater Boston. Thousands of area Jews will have access to a live shofar this year,” said Lipsker. “If people want to schedule a volunteer to come to them, I suggest they make a request early.”

Sanctuaries may be empty this fall, but the faith of area Jews perseveres.

“We have learned that our community exists whether we meet in person or not,” said Hayes. “The fabric of Temple Isaiah remains intact even if we gather in a new way.”

Linda Greenstein can be reached at greensteinlm@gmail.com.