A High Holy Day Reframe:
Meeting Needs is a Synagogue’s Mission in Covid and Always

By Hannah Strasser Olson and Seth Yoskowitz

With the High Holy Day season on the horizon, there were some burning questions mounting in our email accounts:

“Will we be livestreaming our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for free, or do I still have to pay for tickets?”

“Will we loan out machzorim to those who need?”

“Can we still do Tashlich together at the stream?”

“Will there be a communal break fast this year?”

“Does anyone know how to make a brisket?”

It was clear to the leadership of our 450 member-unit Conservative congregation in Chevy Chase, MD that people were starting to feel a whole lot of anxiety about the coming holidays. And while any Member of the Tribe will tell you that a certain amount of stress is part-and-parcel during the busy season, no one should be surprised that a pandemic would amplify and magnify those feelings. All the routines we count on as a community have come to feel as though they, too, are being attacked by a teeny-tiny virus, one that would keep us from sharing a holiday meal with our extended families, block us from running into long-time friends in the sanctuary and hallways of our shul, and prevent us from singing along to the tunes that define the holiday experience for us. This viral attack can, at times, leave us and our congregants feeling lost and floundering, and the calls for direction were coming in loud and clear.

We formed a High Holiday Task Force from a cross-section of our membership, which quickly realized that the questions being asked were indicative of the anxiety our members were facing, not of the answers they needed. As tempting as it was to simply move all of our “regular” activities to an online forum, we weren’t at all sure that would result in a satisfying holiday experience for our congregants. So rather than respond to anxiety, we made the conscious decision to look at need.

Our Task Force started out with two simple questions: What are the needs that you have met at Ohr Kodesh Congregation during a typical High Holy Day season? What are the unusual needs you have during this particular High Holy Day season? Using this simple reflection exercise, we transformed our entire menu of offerings, and are for the first time presenting HiHo@OKC, a roughly two-month long engagement initiative centered around meeting the needs of our congregational family between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Simchat Torah.

The answers to our starter questions might have seemed obvious, but asking them out loud – to ourselves and to members of our congregation – allowed us to hone in on what our priorities should be, and to build a program that focused on those priorities. Here are the results, and just a few of the offerings we devised to meet those needs:

  1. Priority Need 1: Community – Particularly at a time when families and individuals are feeling isolated, we need ways to come together, virtually and in-person (with social-distancing and other health measures enforced), and to connect with each other. To address this, we started by creating a HiHo Gift Bag, designed and distributed by a crew of dedicated volunteers to all our member households. This bag will be the beginning of our touch points, making sure that we fully extend ourselves to our members, and don’t rely on any individual to make an initial outreach effort.

From there, we launched a variety of community-collaborative initiatives. We created our own version of Project 929, called Project 180+7, inviting people to read a chapter of Torah and offer a 4-6 sentence insight, which will be compiled into a book in time for Simchat Torah. We launched projects for sharing recipes and reflections, for Zoom-enabled Sukkot Week Family Dinner Dates (think speed-dating: rounds of fun questions with a new family breakout room every 5 minutes), for in-person apple picking, and for signing up to be part of a Generation Together, a multi-generational buddy program. We engaged a group to do community shofar blowing, and coordinated with other area shuls so that more neighborhood corners might carry a shofar blast to the ears of our children, our parents and grandparents, and to those who might have no one to connect with on their own.

  1. Priority Need 2: Ritual and Halacha – We couldn’t (and wouldn’t) disregard the significant halachic imperatives during this season, and wanted to provide as many ways as possible to our congregants to have their ritual and halachic needs met. Our Rabbi agreed that we could offer livestreamed services (congregants start their videos before the holiday begins and leave them running – no electrical interaction required), and that quickly became our key service delivery method. We knew we’d be able to reach the most congregants through this vehicle, but we couldn’t leave the technology to the single, distant, blurry camera in the back of the room we’d been using. Instead, we’re investing in upgrades: multiple cameras and an ambient microphone to capture the voices of the small number of congregants who could be allowed in the 700-person sanctuary. (You might be surprised at how many people named “communal singing” as one of their needs.) We’re arranging a satellite broadcast to our own spacious Social Hall for an additional limited number of people to be able to pray together as well as outdoor spaces for social distanced communal prayer led by our members. We’re loaning out our Machzorim, arranging for lulav and etrog deliveries, preparing downloadable materials for Rosh Hashana “seders,” creating small-group Tashlich opportunities, and providing more opportunities for people to hear the sounds of the shofar.
  1. Priority Need 3: Family Programming – We’re blessed to be a congregation with a thriving, warm, and growing population of young families. Yet social distancing with 2-year-olds presents a whole new set of challenges. We were determined to figure out how to build in content that would provide for these families and put attention toward growing the children’s budding sense of Jewish identity. For this, we called on our amazing educational staff, including our Early Childhood Center (ECC) teachers and youth group advisors. We are increasing the number of family services we offer, livestreaming them on the same channel as our regular services with our highly popular Family Service leader. We plan to have “Pizza in the Hut” online Sukkot gathering for our teens, Hebrew scavenger hunts for our ECC students, family cooking demonstrations, and a plethora of synchronous and asynchronous activities for kids: from apple tastings to sing-a-longs, and from a candy Sukkah building contest to guided family nature walks.
  1. Priority Need 4: Study and Personal Growth – This is a time when our congregation typically doubles down on learning opportunities, and we wanted to find a way to offer classes and gatherings that inspired different constituents in our shul. We created a #30DaysOfLearning initiative, sending a daily email between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Erev Rosh Hashanah that includes a quick video learning/drash by different members of our shul, links for additional study, program highlights, and collaborative questioning, where we’ll learn more about members in our congregation. We’re arranging full-length lectures on larger topics like worship and goal setting, shofar blowing and specific sections of the High Holy Day liturgy. Finally we’ve partnered with The Den Collective to add meditation and self-reflection to our menu of activities that inspire and engage our community.
  2. Priority Need 5: Social Action/Social Justice – Even as we all struggle through the pandemic, we are constantly aware of the blessings in our lives. Acts of gratitude, connected through moments of service to others, is one of the most critical components of dealing with hardship, and it is a cornerstone of our synagogue activity at all times of the year. As we were planning the calendar, we knew that we needed to incorporate social action for the good of our own shul community and for the good of the wider community. We’ve planned to pack 200 Rosh Hashanah bags in partnership with our local Jewish Social Service Agency and distribute them to families in need. We’ve partnered with Operation Isaiah to address food scarcity, and asked congregants to drop by nonperishable food items throughout the holiday season. We’re working on opportunities for our community to hear from voices in the Black Lives Matter movement and to plan actions to support Jews of color and people of color for the immediate term and the long term.

After the initial release of the HiHo website (designed and stood up specifically for this purpose this year) and our menu of offerings to our congregation, we were excited at the response. Our community was impressed by the choices and offerings, and are finding places to plug in that feel like authentic holiday experiences for them and their families. Beyond that, we are experiencing a surge of people with their own wonderful ideas, who are offering up their time and talent to connect with people and bring activities and events to the HiHo@OKC menu. It’s become a full community-wide effort, and we’re proud of the ownership our congregants are taking in meeting the needs of themselves and others through this collaborative planning cycle.

It’s hard to be all things to all people during a “regular” holiday cycle. We are under no illusions that we’ve been able to master that particularly complicated move during a pandemic. But we’re certain that by focusing on meeting key needs of our congregants, we’ll be able to meet many of them during this season. We hope that the lessons we’re learning now – and the strategies we’re using to build our congregational offerings – will help guide us as we prioritize the next phase of congregational life, one that we hope will be teeny-tiny virus free, with just the regular amount of Jewish anxiety.

Hannah Strasser Olson is Chair, High Holiday Task Force and Seth Yoskowitz is President, Ohr Kodesh Congregation.

Ohr Kodesh Congregation is a Conservative synagogue in Chevy Chase, MD. We invite you to check out our high holiday programming at www.okchighholidays.org.