The High Holy Days 2020: ‘There are lots of ways to access our tradition’


Whether you plan to pray online for the High Holy Days this year or to dip apples in honey and hear the blasts of the shofar in temple, the Jewish New Year will arrive at sunset on Friday, Sept. 18.

Will you be present for services or will COVID-19 keep you at home? Will the holidays be filled with regrets for what they should have been? Will 5781 be a sweet year? While no one can see the future, we can find inspiration and hope right now from rabbis in our community.

The High Holy Days are more than just the 10 days encompassing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Hebrew months of Elul and Tishrei (before, during and after the High Holy Days) are full of special days for finding joy and reflecting, says Michael Fel, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence.

“In this trying time, we have to find hope and strength in other sources,” Rabbi Fel said, adding that he finds comfort in Psalm 27, which is read every day of Elul. Rabbi Fel sees the last phrase of the Psalm as a call for resilience. It reads, in part, “… be strong and of good courage.” 

Preparation for the High Holy Days is an outdoors experience for Project Shoresh, a Rhode Island-based community service organization.

“Before Rosh Hashanah, we are going to walk to Israel,” said Rabbi Naftali Karp, the project director, explaining that if 60 participants walk just a mile or so each day for the 60 days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the collective team of walkers will cover the 5,506 miles from Providence to Tel Aviv.

“The walk to Israel is an expression of our unity as a Jewish people and a show of support for our homeland,” said Rabbi Karp. “Our goal is to keep people connected. It’s good to exercise, too.”

If you think about it, walking is an important part of our heritage. After all, Abraham was a walker. Walking is also a wonderful way to get outdoors and remain at a safe social distance.

Rabbi Yossi Laufer, spiritual leader of Chabad of West Bay, in Warwick, practically bubbles over with enthusiasm about the approaching High Holy Days. If there is a potentially positive outcome from COVID-19, Rabbi Laufer is determined to find it and share it with the community.

“You don’t need big buildings, long services, or even rabbis, to be fully Jewish in how you think, act and perform mitzvot,” Rabbi Laufer said. “When it comes to spirituality, you have to have the right state of mind. Spirituality is very individual.”

Rabbi Laufer said that during the pandemic, “We might need to find new avenues to express our Judaism.”

He thinks that the most important moment of Rosh Hashanah is hearing the shofar – in person.  But Rabbi Laufer makes the point that there is no law requiring a Jew to hear a “professional” shofar blower. He has been teaching Jews how to toot their own horn for more than 20 years. Learning to blow a shofar reinforces Rabbi Laufer’s conviction that Judaism is highly personal.

For many American Jews, the High Holy Days are about showing up. Being present confirms membership in the tribe. In a year where physical presence often isn’t possible, what will fill the gap?

Temple Emanu-El has a large congregation, making it challenging to reach each family in a personal way. But that’s the plan, explained Rabbi Fel. Each family will receive a gift bag for the holidays with apples and honey, arts and crafts for the kids, study sheets, service schedules and a few surprises to make the holidays at home sweeter.

“We need to empower congregants so they can do this comfortably at home. We are working hard to create meaningful experiences,” Rabbi Fel said.

Sarah Mack, acting senior rabbi at Temple Beth-El, in Providence, recognizes that her congregants are grateful that the temple has taken their health concerns into account by deciding quite early to offer remote services. A core value of the temple is to do no harm, so remote services were the only choice, she said.

“We can find meaning through a mix of worship, including livestreaming, prerecorded music and smaller, more private Zooms,” said Rabbi Mack. “There are lots of ways to access our tradition.”  

Some Jews look upon the High Holy Days as an opportunity to remember the past and to reflect on the present and rekindle beliefs. Being present physically isn’t required.

“Our job [at Temple Beth-El] is to be there with a connection to the familiar and our values,” said Rabbi Mack.  

Tashlikh is one of those fun, memorable family-friendly Jewish activities with a low barrier to participation. It is typically conducted on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, unless it falls on Shabbat, which is the case this year; Tashlikh will take place the second day of the holiday this year. Tashlikh requires throwing pieces of bread into a flowing body of water, thus symbolically casting away your sins from the previous year.

Rabbi Fel is embracing this practice during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with gatherings of small groups.

“You never know when you’ll find a spiritual opportunity,” he said.

Rabbi Mack wondered if “maybe there is a silver lining” to the virus.

“It makes you focus on what is most essential and most important,” she said. “With great uncertainty comes great possibility.”

MARC RUSSMAN ( is a freelance writer on topics of Jewish interest.

High Holy Days,