Dreaming Up High Holy Days

By Rabbi Joshua Lesser

The Covid-19 pandemic has created real fears for the Jewish community. And for so many of us, this is about our survival – as institutions, as communities, as a people. Yes, it is precisely when our survival is at stake and our mettle is tested that Jewish creativity expands and that joy, creativity, and unity are indeed possible.

For me, I have had a front seat to one of the most joyful spots of our tragic time. With a group of Jewish leaders from different movements and perspectives, I helped create a Facebook group called Dreaming Up High Holy Days 2020.

This group emerged from a different conversation space of multi-faith clergy that I originated to help leaders on many spiritual paths navigate this pandemic. Planning Passover observances in the earliest stages of the general shut-down was a huge challenge and posed a significant learning curve for many rabbis, cantors, and Jewish communal leaders. The multi-faith convening space became a place for leaders looking for help, asking for suggestions, and sharing resources on everything from how to Zoom, creating Passover “boxes” to be delivered to congregants’ homes, and what Haggadah resources were best adaptable to the virtual format. The same forum also saw a blossoming of ideas from our Christian colleagues contemplating Easter observances as well as practitioners of other spiritual traditions quickly adapting to this new world.

Once we navigated Passover, it quickly became apparent that we needed significant lead time to even begin contemplating the High Holy Days in the mostly virtual platforms and assuredly different setting than many of us were used to. Rabbi Michael Latz convened a brainstorming session on Zoom bringing together hundreds of rabbis and cantors from across the Jewish world. On this call, someone requested the creation of a Facebook discussion group specifically for the ongoing sharing and complex planning of the High Holy Days. Taking what I had learned in creating the other space, the group Dreaming Up High Holy Days 2020 was born.

Deluged at the onset, we recruited a group of moderators, only one of whom I knew well before this experience. This group of volunteers has been an incredible group of colleagues and our companionship navigating effective leadership has been collaborative, caring, and selfless. We laugh through the fears and tears.

People should take note, Dreaming Up High Holy Days 2020 is one of the beacons of a bright future for the Jewish community. What has occurred is a powerful message to our community. It is the joy in the face of tragedy. Why does it portend such a bright future for us?

With no grant money, no institutional nudging, no incentive other than the sheer commitment to the common good and a desire to serve our people well, we have been convening. For over 4 months, 2600 cantors, rabbis, educators, and lay leaders of all different movements and perspectives have been problem-solving together and generously sharing innovative and practical ideas and resources. Safety, creativity, purpose, and meaning are all at the fore. Even more encouraging is that communally, we are offering mutual support for the emotionally daunting, exhausting, and sometimes terrifying aspects of this work.

And aside from an occasional self-promotional post, people have been doing this egolessly, compassionately, and enthusiastically. People feel free to bring all of their questions. The critical judgment of different viewpoints and choices has been low and the encouragement and respect have been high. The engagement is considerable; according to Facebook 93% of the group is active. There are rabbis from established movements and seminaries and rabbis from alternative centers of learning and ordination. There are affiliated leaders, including national leaders, and solo-practitioners in small congregations.

Alongside this, a market place grew. With thoughtful measures put into place, we created a “virtual shuk” where Jewish entrepreneurial leaders offered valuable resources for reasonable costs. People could find graphics, choral video support, machzor supplements, and appropriately themed art like “shviti”s (adorned meditation tools) and greeting cards. In addition, many Jewish organizations followed the momentum and sharing of this group and created responsive offerings. Organizations like some of our rabbinical associations, Haggadot.com and the Center for Rabbinic Innovation used the platform to provide the resources and the training some people were requesting.

Rarely have I seen such goodwill, good nature, and good content woven together. Not only is this what the Jewish future could look like, but it is what the Jewish present looks like right here and now.

While there are little losses, we do not have to grieve Judaism just yet. Don’t let anyone tell you Judaism and Jewish communal life is on the extinction list. Nor does it have to be all turf war and proprietary. This is clal yisrael, Jewish unity at its essence. No one person or organization owns the page; this is an open-source Jewish movement. This is joyful perseverance in the face of some steep challenges. Together, we might even dream up the Jewish future.

May we all prosper together in 5781.

Rabbi Joshua Lesser

Dreaming Up High Holy Days is also moderated by:

Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein
Rabbi Stephanie Kolin
Rabbi Michael Latz
Rabbi Oren Steinitz
Cantor Cheryl Wunch

Joshua Lesser serves as the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Bet Haverim, a Reconstructionist Congregation founded by LGBT Jews and their loved ones in Atlanta, GA. Bridging the compassionate and contemplative world of Jewish spiritual direction with cutting edge communal models, he is the founder of two Facebook groups supporting clergy navigating these complicated pandemic-influenced times: Spiritual and Communal Responses to Covid-19 and Dreaming Up High Holy Days 2020.