The Jewish Experience

Rabbis Reflect on the High Holidays

A rabbi outdoors holding a shofar

Aug. 31, 2021

They're a High Holidays like no other.

For over a year, congregations across the country have been meeting via videoconference, unable to schmooze, laugh, cry, hug and pray together in person.

Now, at last, many Jews will return to their synagogues to reconnect and reaffirm the bonds of their community.

And yet, it's still unknown whether we'll have to go back to Zoom services. A new Jewish year is beginning, but no one can be sure that the pandemic is over.

The Jewish Experience asked several alumni in the rabbinate to reflect on this moment — what it means to them, their congregations and the Jewish people.

Affirming Life amidst Loss | Rabbi Jay Perlman '91 

Rabbi Jay Perlman

None of us has ever experienced anything like this before. Over the past year, there has been so much loss — the loss of life, loss of livelihood, loss of certainty. 

As a community, we felt that it was a priority to be as supportive as we could. One of the most profound blessings of community is the ability to help people find strength through connections with one another and with Jewish tradition. 

We had dozens of volunteers reach out to every Temple Beth Shalom (TBS) member, making a total of 5,000 phone calls. Most of the time, people were hanging in there. But very frequently, people would say, "You know, what I need is somebody to get groceries for us." Some people had children who needed support. We tried to let people know that they were being seen and heard, and cared for. We tried our best to reach out to people where they were. 

To mark the new year, we decided to do something that will bring us together in the spirit of creativity, renewal and hope. Our congregation engaged a soferet (scribe) to pen a new Torah for our congregation. 

Every member of the congregation will be invited to participate in the Torah’s writing. In that way, they will be participating in the creation of the entire Torah scroll. It is our hope that this will enable people to rediscover the spark of life within each other and our community...

We are mindful that many in our community are looking to take a meaningful next step in their life journeys. I sense a desire to re-embrace life. There is also a desire to memorialize and learn from what we experienced together. We must all move forward and, at the same time, remember with love those who have died. 

One lesson that has been unquestionably reaffirmed by the members of our community: There is comfort in knowing that we are part of a circle of souls that genuinely cares. We're here to ask questions together. We're here to wrestle and struggle together. By doing so, we will get through this together.

Rabbi Jay Perlman is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts. 

‘The soft sound of guilt’ | Rabbi Rachel Salston '12

Rabbi Rachel SalstonI began my position here in August 2020, and the congregation was already having its services remotely. I didn't even know what tunes they liked to sing. I just dove in with what I thought people knew. It was a bit surreal. ...

I have a new appreciation for being in a physical synagogue. The feeling of singing together with people is what we’ve missed the most. And the informality.

Yes, we can make announcements, and we can say mazel tov over Zoom. But it doesn't have the organic feeling of joy, or the converse, the shared loss of seeing someone in their week of shivah [mourning]. It’s the informal nod, or even a hug, that says, “There you are. I see you.” …

I think of this season as we prepare to recite the Al Het, the confessional prayer recited on Yom Kippur. In this prayer, we repent collectively and with each verse, we all physically lightly hit our chests with our fists. 

Even if one has access to a visual of others on Zoom, nothing can recreate the sounds of other people hitting their chests. Thuds that happen at almost the same second, but not quite. The soft sound of guilt amplified by an entire congregation creates a strange and comforting chorus of collective experience. The unintended sounds and experiences of community are what make a shul a shul for me. The approximation of that on Zoom — it's not the same. 

I look forward to the real communal experience soon.

Rabbi Rachel Salston serves at Fair Lawn Jewish Center Congregation/B’nai Israel, Fair Lawn, New Jersey.