Perspectives on the 2020 High Holy Days – Part 4

This post is part of our series: Perspectives on the 2020 High Holy Days. (Click here to see a list of all the posts in this series.)

In this post, members of the AJRCA community share their key takeaways from this HHD season.

Since services were delivered in so many different ways — almost all of them a departure from the norm — we were all learners this year!


Always have backups. Video editing takes a LONG TIME. Congregation really appreciated all the efforts and we really got a load of kudos, thanks. A few minor suggestions for tweaks, but people were overflowing with how smoothly it went and how meaningful it was. Some key elements were including congregants who videoed themselves doing honors, having the choir and kids’ choir on video and some audio. We added some neat elements like artwork to go along with the reading of Jonah, and a Torah Cam (yad pointing to the words) as congregants did the Torah readings. People appreciated that the clergy led from their homes – made it feel like we were all in the same boat. My personal experience of the actual holiday felt a lot different. I was not able to celebrate it normally, but I could take breaks and see my husband from time to time.. Keys are participation, innovation, cooperation, flexibility, and a lot of very hard nad detailed work.

Abby Gostein, Cantorial Student
Temple Beth Shalom, Austin, Texas

Basically, what we did was high quality and well-received and appreciated.. Notwithstanding, I do not feel it is sustainable long-term. Services and classes need to be shortened, more use of visuals and props, higher energy. There are outstanding livestreams from well-budgeted and experienced congregations across the country that are accessible. Our calculations were that we wanted to approximate, as close as possible, the sights and sounds familiar to congregants, and that is what they really wanted as opposed to ‘the best’ music, sermons, etc available elsewhere.

Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman (’05)
Congregation Kehillah, Phoenix, Arizona

  • We can reach a wider community by continuing to offer online options long after the pandemic is over.
  • It seems like people can remain engaged while sitting at home (some even expressed feeling more engaged).
  • Offering something new and different seems to be appealing. It’s a good reminder to keep rethinking, keep reinvigorating Jewish life and prayer – pandemic or not.

Jacqueline Rafii, Cantorial Student
Shomrei Torah Synagogue, West Hills, California

We learned (and I think we already knew this) that people want to be together. Even for the community that used podcasts, a number of folks asked for a zoom room to be open so that they could listen to the podcasts together. WE also learned that live-streaming and zooming allows folks from all over the world to attend services, to join far flung parts of their families, and that there is an intimacy when we celebrate holy days with folks in their home spaces, sharing their home spaces on the screen (for those who chose to be seen). And…nothing substitutes for in-person community.

Rabbi Diane Elliot (’06)
Aquarian Minyan and Torah of Awakening/ Urban Adamah, Berkeley, California

I think that one of my biggest takeaways is that congregants liked and found Zoom easier for them to be at services. Many drive long distances to get to Shul. Zoom made it easier and more relaxed for them and their families. I did have congregants who came and assisted with Torah Readings, Hagbah and Gelilah, English readings, Lifting the Cantor during Aleinu, make shofar calls, and running the Zoom themselves one at home and one Shul. I also had a computer on the Bimah with me so I could see the congregation especially those who “showed” themselves to me rather than just listen in or show a still picture or no picture at all (Zoom etiquette for our Congregation was provided).

All of learned that it takes a village to make all this happen. This includes admitting on-site visitor temperatures, make sure they wear masks, we took several breaks to refresh ourselves, we offered water bottles to everyone, everyone was told to bring their own tallit and kipah. The cantor lead series with others were on mute. A problem is that 90% on zoom turned their cameras off – which is outside of zoom etiquette. Also, we have many stop by to borrow prayer books a week prior to the holiday services. Overall I believe we did a great job using technology to engage our members and visitors on the High Holy Days.

Cantor Bruce Shapiro (’17) and Congregation President Bruce Rouman
Congregation Beth Shalom, Corona, California

I learned to CONNECT with congregants in a new way, through the camera. Also I got how important it is to stay in touch by phone and zoom. I also added interactive zoom sessions on Rosh Hashanah Day Two and on Yom Kippur afternoon. People want to SEE each other and talk in real time. Although we didn’t have the technical studio power of the “Big Boys” and couldn’t have choir, we were creative and showed pictures of the choir, and a clip of them singing from last year. There were a few surprises for people that they really appreciated, like showing the beautiful nature photographs of a congregants while I was chanting Psalm 121 on Yom Kippur morning. People were very appreciative, and made donations. Our board had been worried about the big financial hit we expected, but people came forward and were generous.

Rabbi Alicia Magal (’03)
Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley, Sedona, Arizona

Open Temple was an early adopter of online services – we have been live broadcasting for years. Going LIVE in a time of COVID was the true lesson. It is our greatest belief that people need more LIVE events that model how to do things RIGHT and few Zoom and remote experiences.

Rabbi Lori Shapiro (’10)
The Open Temple, Venice, California

Judaism has forever been changed by the pandemic. What it means to gather community and WHERE we gather community has changed. By having online programming, we are putting ritual and religious practice back in the home and back in the hands of worshipers, which is incredible. People don’t need to “come to us” anymore to be Jewish for them, so now we have to figure out ways of coming to them, once the pandemic is over.

Cantor Lisa Peicott (’18)
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles, California

A. Many of our congregants were pleased with our offerings, and many were displeased. I think this is the case in any situation — it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. We certainly learned a lot from the experience, not the least of which is that we really need to hire a producer more than three weeks before the holiday, because that was the biggest disaster — nobody was willing to make any decisions. Because of the tight time schedule, everything was done in haste and there were things forgotten or done badly as a result. Many of our volunteer choir members were frustrated by the recording process (several chose not to participate at all), and if we do any future virtual choir work, we will make some adjustments to this process.

B. While my accompanist and I both put off the recording sessions until the eleventh hour (mostly because we were both just too busy with other things to deal with it), everything turned out well. It was a lot less complicated than what we did for my home synagogue (especially since it only involved two people). We had zero rehearsal time (compared to previous years, when we would have had four or five rehearsal sessions before the holidays), but because we’ve worked together for a few years and we didn’t introduce any new music this year, things went fine. We are using the same model for our monthly Erev Shabbat services (our first one of the year was this past week), although we do not plan on any more in-person recording sessions. Instead, we will be adding one or two asynchronously recorded pieces each month as we have time, gradually building up a library.

Sarah Bollt, Cantorial Student
Congregation Or Chadesh (A) and Institute of Judaic Services and Studies (B) Tucson, Arizona

Thanks so much to all who shared their reflections. Please share your own HHD experiences in the comments area below!

To read any of the other posts in this series, please click here.

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