As the pandemic continues to worsen locally, with limited worldwide information and experience to draw from, Milwaukee–area synagogues are pursuing varying strategies for the approaching High Holy Days in September .
For Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha, the usual plans for in-person High Holidays services have been set aside.
“Unless things change quite a bit, at this point it does not look likely for that happening,” said Cantor Deborah Martin of the Reform shul. “We’ve done a lot of research. We’ve talked to doctors inside our congregation and outside our congregation.”
Martin is planning virtual High Holy Day services.
The Wisconsin coronavirus map has been a roller coaster, with a somewhat steady rise in new daily cases through spring until a one-day high of 733 in late May. This was followed by a steep drop in June with several days below 300. By late July, daily cases soared back up, above the high of 733, and then intermittently beyond 1,000.
For more observant congregations, this reality can be particularly difficult to manage, given that virtual services may not be an option.
Searching for options
“As a modern Orthodox synagogue, we like to think we have more leeway with certain guidelines,” said Ellis Avner, president of Lake Park Synagogue on the east side. But transmitting services electronically for Shabbat or High Holy Days would be a bridge too far.
Avner cited guidelines issued by the Orthodox Union that urge caution when considering reopening.
The synagogue is now evaluating outdoor settings for possible High Holy Day services. The settings, offered by congregants in backyards or parking areas, to date are not large enough for their regular High Holyday minyanim, Avner said. “We continue to explore other outdoor possibilities,” he said.
Working on it
Rabbi Gil Ezer Lerer said Temple Menorah’s current plan is to hold in-person High Holy Day services. “For those who want to be in synagogue, we’ll have the opportunity,” Lerer said. He did add, however, that he will change course if needed. (See “Temple Menorah continues with inside, in-person services,” p. 8.)
For Congregation Shalom, which attracts a large annual crowd to High Holy Day services, a decision had not yet been made at Chronicle press time.
“We’re going to be making sure it’s safe for the congregation,” said Rabbi Noah Chertkoff, citing pikuach nefesh, the principle that prioritizes saving a life.
“We will definitely not be in the synagogue,” he said. “We are looking at trying to find safe ways to gather as a community while maintaining social distance. We’re still making plans.”
The goal will be to make sure people are safe, feel connected and are spiritually nourished, he said.
Mark A. Levy, vice president of Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha, plans to improve his synagogue’s audio-visual technology with a $5,000 grant from Milwaukee Jewish Federation. The Federation has issued many grants to local Jewish organizations during the pandemic.
“We really have a shoestring operation,” Levy said. “This is huge for us.”
The $5,000 will likely go toward a tilting camera and laptops, for more workable video streaming and editing.
Still, these are painful decisions.
“We made the decision that we will not have services in the sanctuary,” Martin said. “It’s very disappointing for me.”
You can hold services with taking temperatures, wearing masks, and so forth, “but in a closed space, we are told that the risks are much higher,” Martin said. The virus makes singing in a sanctuary risky. Also, the nature of their ventilation system doesn’t help, she added.
Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid is planning a largely virtual High Holidays, though there may be small opportunities for people to gather. Rabbi Joel Alter seeks to provide a strong virtual experience.
“I am pained by the idea that people would say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to skip Rosh Hashanah this year. Yeah, I’ll be forgiven next year. I’m not going to do Yom Kippur this year’,” he said.
Hazzan Jeremy Stein and Alter are going through a painful and practical exercise in deciding what to keep and what to jettison from a normal High Holidays observance, Alter said.
Alter said that “people just can’t sit in front of a screen for as long as our services last. So, we are going to be slashing our services, the content of our services, radically.”
The reality is that remote services offer some advantages but also have limitations.
One of the defining elements of the High Holidays experience is being in a crowd. You can see people you might not have seen in a year.
It’s one of the key aspects that Alter is thinking about: “What do we do about that?”
Martin said: “I’ve been watching a lot of webinars. We’re thinking of ways to make it special.”