Some synagogues across the city are making plans to virtually host the High Holy Days online as coronavirus continues to limit in-person gatherings.
Several Reform Jewish synagogues across the city have decided virtual services would be a safer choice for the religious holiday than in-person gatherings.
The decision to host the religious ceremonies online wasn’t an easy one, but synagogue leaders cite Pikuach Nefesh — a Jewish principle that places people’s safety over Jewish law or customs — as the reason for moving away from welcoming people in person.
“With the pandemic thriving, the congregation’s leadership does not see how a synagogue can seriously consider bringing people into their facilities for the High Holidays,” said Marvin Weinstein, president of Central Synagogue of Chicago. “Social distancing and masks cannot alone eliminate all of the risks in a synagogue environment.”
Illinois has had 155,506 positive coronavirus cases and 7,128 deaths since the virus’ outbreak.
The High Holy Days, or High Holidays, are a spiritual celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, respectively. Rosh Hashanah is from sunset Sept. 18 through 20 and Yom Kippur is from sunset Sept. 27 through 28.
Chicago Sinai Congregation, a Reform Temple, told its members in May that in-person High Holy Days gatherings were unlikely.
“There would be absolutely no way we could get thousands of people in doors safely,” said Rabbi Seth Limmer. “Since then we have been working for a way to bring a meaningful experience online.”
For months the Chicago Sinai Congregation, at 15 W. Delaware Place, has been rehearsing and planning a Zoom-style event celebrating the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. Putting it together has been more more work than in previous years, Limmer said.
“We learned a lot from this year that will be helpful going forward,” Limmer said. “We are focused on what’s essential about the High Holidays and then how can we make sure that people can celebrate it meaningfully.”
“This will be a richer experience than in years past.”
Still, Limmer said, if a vaccine were discovered and able to be administered the day before the High Holy Days, Chicago Sinai Congregation would change course and meet in person.
Rabbi Craig Marantz of Emanuel Congregation, 5959 N. Sheridan Rd., said they plan on having virtual services for the holidays, but that hasn’t been easy coordinate.
“It’s really tricky to bring people together to even prerecord some of our services,” Marantz said. “If we bring people together for singing, for example, we risk spreading the virus. So it’s difficult to get people in the same room for the choir so they can do their part.”
Yet, there is still an opportunity to do something unique and memorable with the High Holy Days, Marantz said.
“We’re just trying to make this pandemic matter in terms of being creative, being innovative and thinking outside of the box,” Marantz said. “We want to make sure that people know they matter to us and that they continue to know there is a place for them in our virtual village.”
Temple Sholom, 3480 N. Lake Shore Drive, also will host virtual services for the holidays, and Rabbi Shoshanah Conover said they are thinking of ways to create moments that usually happen in person.
“Part of the fun of a service is not just what happens in the pulpit but in the seats where people can whisper to each other, where they catch up; it’s beautiful and celebratory,” Conover said. “We want to make sure that isn’t lost in these days, so we are trying to make sure to reach those elements.”
Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South and West sides.