Finding joy in the High Holidays during a pandemic
So here we are…we’ve just finished celebrating Rosh Hashanah, and are about to move into Yom Kippur, fol-lowed quickly by Sukkot. Fall has always been one of my favorite times of the year because I love to celebrate the High Holidays with all my friends and family. This year, the High Holidays certainly feel radically different, so I sat down for a chat with Lions Gate’s Rabbi Rayna Grossman for her perspective on the meaning of the holidays amidst a pandemic.
SL: 2020 has certainly been one for the books. The pandemic is far from over, so there is a global feeling of fatigue right now. Back in March, we faced quarantine with a mixture of faith and hope that we would be “back to normal” by the High Holidays. The holidays feel so different this year, and many of us are struggling to find mean-ing and joy when we can’t share the day with extended family. How are you approaching the holidays this year?
RG: Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the New Year, where we celebrate the renewal of the world. As The Days of Awe, it is a point of reckoning. Just as every human on earth has been impacted by COVID, at Rosh Hashanah every human stands before G-d in judgment. For me, there is such a sense of togetherness in that shared per-spective. The work of teshuvah that we engage in during this time calls on us to better our-selves, and presents all of us with an opportunity for renewal. The holiday services may all be online this year, but the prayers are still the same. The shofar can be heard just as clearly at home. The apples and honey are still just as sweet. We need to hold on to that sweetness and carry it forward in our hearts, embrac-ing the new year with optimism as we hold out hope for better days ahead.
SL: Blowing the shofar during Rosh Hashanah is a symbolic “wake-up call,” stirring all to mend their ways. was so moved when Lions Gate was part of the synchronous sho-
far blowing in the tri-county area. How did that come about?
RG: While we all have to socially distance, Rabbi Nathan Weiner of Cong. Beth Tikvah in Marlton organized a synchro-nous shofar blowing, and all Jewish communities in the area blew their shofar on the same day/time. Just knowing that every Jewish community was hearing the shofar together gives me a feeling of joy. Rabbi Weiner wanted the communal shofar blowing to emphasize how the Jewish community is one, and when we work together we can overcome any challenge.
SL: Yom Kippur begins at sunset on September 27. It is the holiest Jewish holiday of the year, but this year we won’t be gathering together in synagogue to honor it. That makes many of us feel uneasy. How do we reconcile these conflicting feel-ings?
RG: Yom Kippur will cer-tainly be observed differently this year, but you don’t need to be in synagogue to atone for your sins. You can do the spiri-tual work anywhere. In my opin-ion, the meaning of this holi-day—strength, resilience, persistence—mirrors the grit we all need to persevere through this pan-demic. Quite frankly, the need to socially distance strips away all of the distrac-tions of the holi-day, and highlights our individ-ual efforts to push ourselves for internal spiritual change. As we ask G-d to forgive our sins, reflect on past mistakes, and accept repentance, it is that yearning to be better that encap-sulates the beauty of the holiday for me.
SL: As Sukkot approaches, again we wonder how can we find joy in a holiday that will be celebrated so differently from the traditions we’ve built over the years. At Lions Gate, we will not have a sukkah this year, but we will decorate the building to make Sukkot feel present while not coming together in a tiny sukkah to do all the physical rit-uals. Do you have any sugges-tions for how to celebrate Sukkot this year?
RG: Sukkot is the holiday where we celebrate peace, unity, and love. The Etrog is shaped like a heart, and symbolizes our love for each other. The Lulav, the bundle of branches that that includes the palm frond, myrtle, and willow, are bound tightly together, and symbolizes that we are meant to take the journey of life together. If love amidst a shared journey isn’t a perfect metaphor for surviving and thriving amidst a pandemic, I don’t know what is!
SL: To me, the creativity that has come out of the last six months of sheltering-in-place is certainly inspiring. We are acquiring new skills in an effort to renew relationships and engage with those we love in different ways—our Lions Gate residents FaceTime with family now, and do Zoom meetings to play mahjong. Our dining serv-ice has put together an indoor market, where residents can shop for fresh fruit and vegeta-bles without ever leaving the Lions Gate campus. What inno-vation have you noticed at Lions Gate recently?
RG: Residents have come together in new and meaningful ways, and I for one hope these innovations stay in place long after social distancing ends. Our rabbinical intern now holds Jewish theology classes online for all residents, and I stream all of our services each week as well. Residents who previously weren’t physically able to attend services now have a convenient means to attend weekly services and classes while comfortably sitting in their apartments. Our community is connected in new ways, and this has energized us to rethink how we can include everyone in any way possible. From my perspective, our com-munity is more tight-knit than ever because it inspired us to change for the better. None of us wants to lose what has been gained in this trial by fire. If Yom Kippur is where we make amends for the failings of last year, then we should look back at all the effort we have put in to change over the past six months, and realize the struggle was worth it. We are now more con-nected than ever. We are now more grateful than ever. We are now more open to change than ever. If we can accomplish all this in such a short time, think of all that we can accomplish together in the future.
SL: That is true! There really is so much to be grateful for dur-ing the holidays, even amidst a pandemic. May the holidays be a blessing to you, the residents of Lions Gate, and our extended Jewish community, now and always. Embrace the joy of change this season everyone!
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