The job of clergy members is almost never done, and the job description is endless. In a year where a global pandemic kept people the majority of Twin Cities’ Jews away from their home synagogues, shuls offered a variety of options for their High Holiday services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, leading to a new descriptor to their job descriptions: Video producer.
“In this time where we’re having to struggle so much just to just to find each other, I think that there was a real question coming into the holidays about whether we would be able to access Kidusha, whether we would be able to access the sacred, the sacred time, the sacredness of being together as a community,” said Shir Tikvah Rabbi Arielle Lekach-Rosenberg. “And I think that there was a real fear in the community, and I think also with the clergy that we wouldn’t. I’m so grateful coming out of it, the sense I’m hearing is that our tradition is stronger than this pandemic.”
In the same way that there’s no one way to experience Judaism, there was no one way to broadcast High Holiday services. Some live-streamed their service – either on their website or YouTube; some pre-recorded some or most of the service; others used Zoom for some or all of its service.
“This was a new adventure for all of us,” said Adath Jeshurun Congregation Rabbi Aaron Weininger. “There was no one right recipe but a lot of different ingredients and each had their own flavor.”
Lekach-Rosenberg said that in April, Shir Tikvah had a plan for how their service would go if had to be completely remote.
“It became pretty clear that in-person wasn’t going to be possible, so we had to create all of these sort of experiences at home: asynchronous experiences with the Torah, Zoom experiences, just really trying to create a thicker weave,” she said. “And more modalities than we’ve ever done before.”
The service was broadcast from St. Joan of Arc Church – which was used last year for in-person service – with each of the three rabbis having their own, socially distanced podium. Lekach-Rosenberg led the singing parts of the service with her mother, Ilene Safyan – a lay-cantor in Portland, Ore. – and MJ Gilbert, a Shir Tikvah regular. Lekach Rosenberg said the trio had been quarantining together since the beginning of Elul.
“I wanted to make sure it was safe for my colleagues to be in the room with me, because we had this possibility, but it wouldn’t have been safe,” she said. “Even with all that space, had we not also been in quarantine.”
At St. Paul’s Temple of Aaron, Rabbi Jeremy Fine said that Rosh Hashanah was pre-recorded, but they live-streamed Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services.
“We ramped up the communications and did the best we could to get everyone to sign up to our YouTube channel,” Fine said. The goal was to “make everyone the least uncomfortable. There’s a formula for most years; this year, we didn’t have it.”
The YouTube playlists for Rosh Hashanah allowed people to go through the services and watch what they wanted. The two days of Rosh Hashanah were mostly similar but offered some variation. Fine said he and Cantor Joshua Fineblum set aside a day to record the service. Rabbi Micah Miller was only in some of the videos.
“It’s not normal, but we didn’t want to share microphones or have people be confused about which service was which,” Fine said. “It was a very tough decision, but we not only wanted to be safe, but we also wanted the optics to look safe.”
Not What They Trained For
“Any cantor in America, if you would have told us in cantorial school ‘By the way, you should really think about taking a class in video and audio production, because it’s going to be helpful to you in 2020, we would have laughed,” said Adath Hazzan Joanna Dulkin.
Said Fine: “It’s not the job I signed up for, to make music videos.”
Adath, like others, went with a hybrid approach – pre-recorded services with several live options sprinkled in throughout the day. Even something as simple as a congregational schmooze time in an effort to replicate the in-person experience.
“It’s ultimately an aesthetic choice, and I think that’s been fascinating,” Dulkin said. “Different congregations, kind of choosing what their aesthetic is.”
Bet Shalom, like Adath, had pre-recorded their services but offered at least one real-time online event each day.
“One of the factors that have led us to feel really good about doing it is that we also made a decision that we were going to produce the holidays as opposed to broadcast the holidays,” said Rabbi David Locketz. “The difference is doing what you always do with somebody, videoing it from the back of the room, versus actually going through a production process. Right. And so we went through a production process, and it was grueling.”
For Locketz and clergymates Rabbi Jill Crimmings and Cantor Tamar Havilio, that meant breaking down the service into liturgical blocks. Like with Temple of Aaron, it allowed Bet Shalom to use the same blocks multiple times.
Locketz said that the services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were well received – which was a long way from where people’s attitudes were during the summer after the plan was announced.
“There were plenty of people who were angry,” he said. “We were very public about how we made the decision and what the decision was. But they were grieving not being able to do what they expected to do. But they also had no idea they couldn’t picture what we were even talking about.”
Mount Zion also let people know early on that this was going to be a High Holiday season unlike any other. Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker said that they surveyed membership to see what they were looking for, but that also helped set expectations.
“We managed to do almost everything people were interested in doing because there are so many more opportunities with Zoom and pre-recordings and other kinds of things that we were able to do a lot of things that could meet the different needs,” he said. Mount Zion ended with an almost equal number of prerecorded and live pieces.
“For Kol Nidrei, we were able to have all the past presidents recorded in the sanctuary holding a scroll and have them all on the on the screen as we heard the cantor chant the prayer,” he said. “Those kinds of moments could never have happened before. And it created a more of intimacy for people then they expected.”
The Zoom Experience
Beth El and Beth Jacob both opted for the now-familiar Zoom service – but even those two shuls did them differently. Beth Jacob’s new rabbi, Adam Rubin, stayed by himself on the bimah – with the occasional help from his 10-year-old son, Elior; Beth El’s Rabbi Avi Olitzky said that he and his clergy-mates were broadcasting from home.
“We felt that if our community was going to be in their homes, it was appropriate for us to be in ours too,” Olitzky said.
Rubin said that by being in the sanctuary and opening the ark, it gave his congregation a sight that it hasn’t had since March.
“It’s a DIY, grassroots-style synagogue, and people wanted that sense of community,” he said. “Pre-recorded things didn’t work for us; people really want things to be live, and the person leading them in real-time.”
Beth El also had nothing prerecorded, which allowed Olitzky to change his sermon on the fly. With the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, Sept. 18, Olitzky rewrote his sermon to be a tribute to her.
“If it’s prerecorded, I couldn’t address what was on everyone’s mind,” he said.
While not eager to do it this way again, Rubin said he’s received positive feedback from his congregation.
“It’s been really tough,” he said. “This year has been crazy and people are disappointed. But given the circumstances, people found it meaningful.”
Temple Israel also chose to use Zoom for its services, but like several others, had pre-recorded it’s highly regarded youth choir to drop in during the service.
“People were afraid we would have to give that up,” Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman said. “Those are the kind of moments we could bring to people.”
Some new programming was also added this year; Zimmerman said that in the Mizrachi and Sefardi tradition of having a Rosh Hashanah seder, Temple had a Zoom seder that nearly 200 households joined in for.
“We thought there would be people who were alone who might not otherwise to have people with them for Erev Rosh Hashanah,” she said. “We wouldn’t do a dinner on Rosh Hashanah normally, but it was just lovely.”
Zimmerman also used the expertise of Temple’s newest clergy member, Rabbi Tobias Moss, who was adamant that the synagogue use Zoom. Moss said it was an easy decision.
“We’re a congregation,” he said. “We have to find ways to bring people together. For every Friday during quarantine we do Zoom, and we’re finding every which way to make in an engaging experience. I don’t want to just film; I want to engage with people and be part of that communal experience.”
Said Zimmerman: “It was so great. It was much harder to do Zoom, but it was so much more rewarding.”
I congratulate all of the synagogues for creating a sense of community when we can’t be physically together. The upside of this year was that my mobility challenged mom could listen to High Holiday services for the first time in many years. Thank you to the clergy!