Bringing the High Holidays Home: Enhancing the Zoom Experience

By Rabbi Richard Hirsh

In just a few weeks, many Jews throughout the world will sign in to Zoom, or a similar online platform, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, choosing to avoid the contingencies, uncertainties and dangers of gathering in synagogues while the Covid-19 virus continues to be a threat. How can rabbis, cantors, prayer-leaders and congregants collaborate to make this unusual way of gathering a meaningful spiritual experience?

During this Covid summer, I happened to come across this helpful teaching from the rabbinic text Avot de-Rabi Natan:

“A person who knows that she/he will be studying at home should set an intention (yit-kaven, derived from the familiar word kavanna/intention) not to engage in conversation with a spouse or children.” (Avot de-Rabi Natan 21)

The text does not say “one should not study at home because there are distractions.” The text says, in effect: when you know in advance that something that you usually do in a familiar place will be done at home, anticipate the distractions, make preparations in advance to enhance and support the experience, and set a kavanna, an intention, that frames that experience.

How might we apply the insight of this text – that you can transfer a familiar activity to home and still make it meaningful – to our forthcoming on-line Yamim Noraim services?

We might begin with the first question God asks in the Torah, the question that introduces the Season of Turning: “where are you?” After months of Zoom Shabbat, many of us have found our new makom k’vuah, the “fixed space” in our homes from which we sign-in to services. Whether the kitchen, dining room, living room, study, basement or bedroom, we know from the familiar backgrounds we see weekly in the Zoom gallery that many of us have settled in to “our usual place.”

But Covid closures arrived so suddenly last winter that in many cases, we gave little thought to whether the space we chose for signing-in to those first few weeks of Shabbat-on-line was a space that supported our experience – a space that came with the kavanna of “avoiding distractions.”

As we anticipate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we can ask in advance: what space in my home can best support the experience I am hoping to have? Is it the most comfortable space? The most formal space? The space where I spend a lot of time, or a space that rarely gets used? “Family space” or “guest space”?

Even if our computer and camera are not portable, what kind of intention can we set for how we arrange and decorate our chosen space? What objects; what photos; what family treasures; what books, poems and art; and what Jewish symbols can be moved into the sacred space we are creating? As the detailed descriptions in the Torah for building the portable sanctuary attest, sacred space does not happen by itself: it takes thought, intention and advance planning.

Our text from Avot de-Rabi Natan cautions us specifically against the distraction of conversation. Applied to our Yamim Noraim experience, how might we set a similar intention? Perhaps we could leave cellphones and other similar devices turned off (or in another room) during on-line services, to remove the temptation to check e-mail or texts, or to make phone calls. If we live with others who for whatever reason are not participating in services, we can ask them in advance to respect the time and space we have set aside, and defer conversation and questions until afterwards.

While informal appearance has become the Zoom norm, we might want to reconsider how we dress for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. How do the clothes we choose help us to support the intentions we are setting? While going formal on Zoom can appear both awkward and artificial, somewhere between “Saturday morning casual” and “all dressed up” might help sustain our efforts to make these days distinctive. And that can of course include wearing the tallit we would normally wear in the synagogue.

Months of living with Zoom Shabbat services has refined our sense of what works best to maintain a sense of kedusha, of holiness. After the initial winter weeks on-line, when a distracting stream of chat/ter ran down the screen simultaneous with the offerings of the prayer leaders, my congregation chose to disable the “chat” function during the actual Shabbat service. This has greatly enhanced our ability to stay focused on the prayers, teachings and songs – and greatly enhanced the kavanna both of the leaders and of the congregants. And, as we have learned, placing everyone on “mute” avoids both distractions and embarrassing moments.

There are wide-spread expectations that however well we manage remote services, people are going to be “disappointed.” I suggest that need not be the case. Almost uniformly, people will, understandably, experience a bittersweet sense of loss at not being able to gather with friends in familiar sanctuaries and other prayer-spaces.

But what if we frame the project of remote services as “What experience are we trying to create?” rather than, for example, “which pages can we skip?” What responsibility can we take for creating a setting that helps us set an intention to be present in sacred time even if shared on-line? if we see the experience we seek to create as a collaborative one in which clergy and congregants are partners, our on-line services, while surely different this year, can yet be spiritual, meaningful and moving.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh has been leading one of two High Holiday services at Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto for the past twenty-two years. He most recently served as facilitator of, and designed the curriculum for, “Men As Allies: Leading Equitable Jewish Workplaces”  for Jewish Women International.