An abundance of hope: Finding new ways to honor old traditions this Jewish new year 

  • Congregant Lev Fein, an Ada Comstock Smith student and single mother of four, chants Torah for the first time in her life. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Rabbi Riqi Kosovske and congregant Lev Fein say the blessing for putting on a prayer shawl. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Rabbi Riqi Kosovske pre-recording the Torah service for Rosh Hashana, noting that “the Torah service started a week early this year.” SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Congregant Sheldon Snodgrass of Williamsburg, whose wife, Dr. Judy Goldman, founded Beit Ahavah, on his bike getting ready to deliver a batch of High Holy Days goodie bags with prayerbooks, sweet treasures and resources to congregants. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Contents of the Beit Ahavah High Holy Days goodie bags. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Rabbi Riqi Kosovske holding two new prayer books. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Avi Gladstone helps his granddaughter pick out pumpkins in Congregation B’nai Israel’s new pumpkin patch, Thursday, in Northampton. Families had the opportunity to schedule a time to get one of the more than 100 pumpkins planted last year to use as part of a traditional Sephardic Rosh Hashana seder that symbolizes both abundance and protection. The patch was planted by the members of the Shefa Summer Team program. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/17/2020 7:13:43 PM

Jewish High Holy Days are a time that traditionally brings families together, whether to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, or to participate in the fasting and intense prayer that accompanies Yom Kippur 10 days later.

But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when everything from education to public meetings has moved online, most of the events for congregations in Northampton and Amherst will be done in a format where people will remain home.

“We decided it was best for the health and safety of everyone to be all virtual,” says Rabbi Justin David, of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, adding that this call was made in June and planning has been taking place ever since.

Similarly, at the Jewish Community of Amherst, no public gatherings will be taking place when Rosh Hashana commences on Friday.

“The main activity at the synagogue, with a lot of people in attendance, just can’t be done,” says Rabbi Benjamin Weiner.

At Beit Ahavah, the reform synagogue in Florence, most events for Rosh Hashana will be virtual. Shofar-blowing services are being held in person Sunday, with social distancing, while small outdoor Tashlich ceremonies — the casting of sins — will take place both Saturday and Sunday in locations throughout the region.

“We have been working very hard and intensely dreaming up High Holy Days 5781/2020 since Passover,” said Rabbi Riqi Kosovske.

Though different, Kosovske said creating this year’s events, many happening through Zoom, has been rewarding. She expects Rosh Hashana to be interactive and participatory, with Kosovkse live from the sanctuary and other people reading poems and prayers from their homes. Recordings of singers performing music, teenagers reading from the Torah in Hebrew, and videos of people sharing memories will be spliced in.

“It is so profound to be planning a new way to bring our Jewish community together in holiness, with all of the COVID restrictions and emotions of the last six months,” Kosovske said.

David said the challenge for Rosh Hashana is to take online a service that lasts five hours and that feeds off the energy and collective singing of a crowd — and to still make it meaningful.

“We hope to create a sense of community participation, although it can’t approach the same thing,” David said, noting that weekly services have been done remotely since March. “High holidays is a completely different experience, so I have no idea how it will go.”

‘Connected and committed’

Some elements of the service will be prerecorded, and will shorten the service, and other elements will make it possible for people to engage through a short interactive component. In addition, David said he will be sharing his thoughts live and will have the text of his remarks available so can participate during and after the service.

David said most people won’t stay for the entire Rosh Hashana service, and participating from home allows congregants the chance to dip in and out.

In Amherst, Weiner said Zoom services have become customary this year, and, while these won’t be able to replicate what happens in person, he expects Rosh Hashana to be as participatory as possible.

“We’ve done a good job of maintaining community. Our core remains connected and committed,” Weiner said.

He does fear, though, that people who would come out normally, especially for the important dates on the Jewish calendar, will instead feel isolated.

Weiner said he misses the people and is using a two-day food drive this week, which supplements a perpetual collection, to see them in a safe and socially distant manner. During this time, he and others will also be handing out prayer books.

Beit Ahavah has also given out prayer books through a recent curbside event, Kosovske said.

“We created and distributed High Holy Days goodie bags with spiritual treasure resources and beautiful new prayer books we fundraised for this summer,” Kosovske said.

Back at Congregation B’nai Israel, one in-person aspect of Rosh Hashana will be the picking of pumpkins at Abundance Farm. Families on Thursday had the opportunity to schedule a time to get one of the more than 100 pumpkins planted last year to use as part of a traditional Sephardic Rosh Hashana seder that symbolizes both abundance and protection.

David said for the past six months, he has engaged people in meditation and prayer, and that continues, along with recognizing the importance of keeping people safe.

“Everyone is missing the live experience because the live experience is so deeply moving,” David said. “But a number of people welcome this as an alternative to reduce risk.”

With Yom Kippur approaching, the pandemic reinforces sadness and the inability to connect in traditional ways.

“At the same time, people feel this is a transformative moment of change,” David said. He hopes that current events will help renew people’s commitment to promoting racial justice, fighting poverty and confronting inequality.

Similarly, Weiner added that existential awareness and reflection about life and death during the High Holy Days gives people a chance to do their best in a chaotic world.

“It’s something we can hold onto as we are orienting ourselves to the reality of this time, and how we live in it,” Weiner said.

Kosovske said the spirit of community has already been accomplished in the lead-up to Rosh Hashana, and now she is looking forward to the service.

“I’m hoping it will be a joyous and nourishing experience and give people strength for the new year,” Kosovske said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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