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For Jewish High Holidays, rabbis find new ways to create community

The pandemic ushers in online services, do-it-yourself packages and “drive-ins” to hear the shofar. “We all still need to find hope and joy.”

For the first time in 92 years, the congregation at Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg will not bring in the Jewish High Holidays together in their place of worship.

But as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approached, Rabbi Michael Torop, joined other rabbis across the area in devising new ways to keep people connected, even if not physically.

“This has been some of the hardest work we’ve ever done,” said Torop, who is president of the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis in addition to leading Temple Beth-El. “On the other side, it’s been some of the most creative work we’ve done.”

There’s a sense of loss in not being able to come together right now, he said. But, through the pandemic, Torop has tried to keep his congregation engaged through phone calls and socially distanced coffees with small groups — which he sometimes thought about stopping, before realizing the gatherings were a lifeline for some.

In a sermon titled “2020: The Year We Must Not Cancel," Rabbi Michael Torop will focus on themes of comfort and hope. [Courtesy of Rabbi Michael Torop]

Being part of a spiritual community is essential, Torop said. “What people are experiencing is the loneliness of isolation, feeling trapped at home or extraordinarily limited in where they’re going or who they are seeing. And those limitations are taking its toll on everyone.”

His Rosh Hashanah sermon — titled “2020: The Year We Must Not Cancel” —will focus on themes of comfort and hope.

“We’re all seeking healing emotionally and spiritually,” Torop said. “I think we all still need to find hope and joy and the possibilities of what could still be ours.”

That message will be carried on the congregation’s website, as well as Facebook Live and YouTube. And Torop said he will keep it shorter than usual, so people can “tune in without tuning out.”

A view of the computer screen used by Rabbi Michael Torop as he edits his virtual sermon for Rosh Hashanah. The leader of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg said he plans to keep his words shorter than usual this year. [Courtesy of Rabbi Michael Torop]

For those who want to hear the traditional blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, the temple is hosting a “drive-in” on Saturday, where cars can park at a distance and tune to an FM station to hear it broadcast. This way, Torop said, members of the congregation can still see one another and feel a sense of community.

At Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, choir members recorded separately in their homes, and the shofar blowers came in early to pre-record for a livestream.

While there is sadness in not being able to celebrate in person, Rabbi Joel Simon said Jewish teaching emphasizes the value of saving a life.

“The prayer itself doesn’t require the big setting, but people look forward to seeing their friends and feeling a part of the bigger community,” he said. “But that kind of large gathering is exactly what’s not safe this year.”

His congregation will offer livestreamed services online and on the Tampa Bay Community Network, followed by a Zoom meeting where members can see each other and interact.

The rabbis say they have encouraged congregation members to try to create a sense of sacredness to the day.

Torop said Temple Beth-El has encouraged people to dress up and set out flowers, and to move computers or streaming devices from their usual spaces.

“It’s hard to think of sitting in front of their TV as a holy space,” Simon said. But people, he said, have been able to make do over the last few months with the technology available, celebrating weddings, babies, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs and mourning deaths.

Rosh Hashanah, which begins before sundown on Friday and ends after nightfall Sunday, will take on extra meaning this year, Simon said.

“That idea of hope for the future and that idea of sounding the alarm of who we are, who we’ve been and who we hope to be is really important,” he said.

At the University of South Florida’s Hillel, Rabbi Ed Rosenthal said all services will be virtual, and offered in a shorter form.

“A lot of students are taking online courses and are experiencing Zoom fatigue,” he said. “The last thing they’ll want to do is spend three hours on a Zoom call reading liturgy.”

For years, USF’s Hillel has run a “Matzah Ball Soup Hotline,” delivering soup to any student who calls feeling unwell. Rosenthal is not sure if it’s due to physical sickness or isolation, but the Hillel has seen a spike in calls this year. That soup, he said, is often a reminder of family and the larger community.

He said he hopes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will allow people time to reflect amid the global turmoil of the last year.

“It’s those acts of random kindness that are missing,” Rosenthal said. "What can each of us do to make this coming year better than the last?”

Rabbi Alter Korf, with the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg, said he’s grateful for the timing of Rosh Hashanah, often a day of reflection.

“For many people it may seem like we had Rosh Hashanah in March this year because we’ve all been locked down and forced to reflect and reconsider things,” he said. “It’s something that couldn’t come at a better time. The energy is renewed.”

Chabad is offering multiple options for people looking to worship. The center will offer socially distanced worship services indoors and outdoors at the Sirata Beach Resort in St. Petersburg on Friday night and a shofar blowing on Sunday.

They also distributed about 100 “do-it-yourself packages” with apples, honey cake, candles, kiddush and a booklet of instructions.

“This is not a year where one size fits all,” Korf said. “What’s right for one person is not right for another.”

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