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How Vt. Jewish Congregations Are Offering High Holiday Services During The Pandemic

A woman standing in front of two doors.
Elodie Reed
Rabbi Amy Small stands for a portrait outside of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, which aside from its child care program, hasn't had people inside since the pandemic started.

The Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are traditionally very busy times inside of Vermont’s temples. But the pandemic has changed everything this year, and congregations around the state are adapting.

During the holiday services, synagogues are typically packed to capacity, with people singing and praying shoulder to shoulder, and plenty of airborne aerosols flying about. Not this year.

At Ohavi Zedek Synagouge in Burlington, the congregation hired a professional filmmaker to record, and edit, the High Holy Day services which the temple leaders put together over the past few months.

Rabbi Amy Small walks behind the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, where she said she's met with a few community members in a spaced-out circle of chairs outside, but generally speaking, hasn't seen many people in person since the pandemic began.

And during the holidays, Rabbi Amy Small says the videos will stream over YouTube so people at home can take part in the service.

“We needed to create a whole new model of the service based on our traditional model, but created for a virtual experience,” she said.

More from Vermont Edition: Vermonters Of Faith Turn To Virtual Worship Amidst COVID-19

The temple website even has a whole page of recommendations on how to “attend” a service from home. That includes getting out of those sweatsuits we’ve been wearing over the past six months, and dressing up like you would for services.

You can access a digital prayer book, and there are directions on how to make sure your electronic device is positioned so that you can face east, towards Jerusalem, which is how synagogues are positioned.

"We needed to create a whole new model of the service based on our traditional model, but created for a virtual experience." — Rabbi Amy Small, Ohavi Zedek Synagogue

The holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur span 10 days. And during the services, Small says she’ll be in the Burlington synagogue while a digital editor streams the pre-recorded service and then cuts in live shots of her and the cantor from the temple.

“It’s been an enormous project,” Small said. “And we are doing our best to try to help people feel like we have that face-time, we have some spontaneity, but we also have a quality service to present. Never seen anything like it, I’m telling ya.”

“Everybody’s a first year rabbi this year,” said Rabbi Ilene Haigh from Congregation Shir Shalom in Woodstock. “Nobody’s ever done this before.”

A sign saying the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue is closed for COVID-19 safety reasons.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Rabbis are having to adapt to new forms of connecting with their congregations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The temple’s choir pre-recorded the music for the services, but Haigh will lead the congregation from the temple in real time, while members all over Woodstock, and around the country join virtually.

Haigh says she’s spent the whole summer trying to whittle down the service, since she knows people can only focus so much on Zoom meetings.

But while the rabbi has been spending time eliminating some of the service, she also says these are special times: Our planet, and our country, and our bodies, are hurting. And she says the congregation will bring in a special prayer this year.  

“We want a healing of the soul and a healing of the body, healing of our people. We pray for healing of the land and peace for every nation, for every child, every woman, every man,” she said, reading from a prayer. “So we’ve transformed our healing prayer this year from one that speaks only to the healing of our bodies, our personal body, which we of course all need, to healing of our nation, healing of our souls. Every woman. Every man.”

A sign reading Tikkun olam means Black Lives Matter
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Signs in support of Black community members line the sidewalk outside Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington. Rabbi Amy Small said racial justice will be incorporated into her holiday services.

In Montpelier Beth Jacob Synagogue has scheduled outside, socially-distanced services for the high Holy Days. The services will also be recorded and sent out over Zoom.

Beth Jacob program director Sarah Zwegust says the congregation thought it was important to bring people together at a time when so many of us have been spending time alone.

More from VPR: 'An Emptying Of That Community': Observing Ramadan During A Pandemic

“Pretty early on in the pandemic, we realized that the High Holidays might look different, and we started planning for how we could still welcome people and make those services feel meaningful,” Zwegust said. “We decided we wanted to try to offer outdoor services, which provided a little more of a logistical challenge. But we feel like it’s worth it in terms of allowing people to have that community sense and see each other and talk, which is so important for the High Holidays.”

Each congregation in Vermont has information on their websites about how they’re approaching the holidays during the pandemic.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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