Producing our High Holy Days: The Four Questions

By Rabbi Danny Burkeman

Over the last few months there have been certain Facebook posts that I have found triggering. I see the post and have an immediate visceral reaction. I am sure that many of you can relate to this feeling, perhaps with political posts, or maybe when we covet pictures from a friend’s (seemingly) perfect vacation. For me, the triggering posts have involved elaborate pictures of video cameras, lighting rigs and clergy dressed in their High Holy Day best to film their services weeks (if not months) in advance.

(Sometimes we Rabbis are “accused” of delivering the sermons that we ourselves need to hear. In the case of this article, I am well aware that I am writing the article that I need to read.)

I will admit that there is a part of me that is breaking the tenth of the Ten Commandments as I covet. I am coveting the complicated set-ups that they have put together and I am certainly envious of the fact that their sermons are done. And now I am even jealous of the fact that their entire High Holy Day preparation is complete a week (if not longer) before Rosh HaShanah.

I’m trying to pause and breathe through my initial reaction. I’m trying to consider a different response, one that doesn’t feel envy or panic because of what they are doing, but rather celebrates what we, in a medium-sized, suburban congregation are doing. I want to be clear; this is not a critique of what others are doing. I can picture scenarios where I would have been there with them. But for this year, for me, for our professional team, and for our congregation, we have chosen to follow a different path.

We have sought to focus on four questions that are defining our approach to this year’s High Holy Days:

  1. What will make our High Holy Days meaningful for our congregation, both as individuals and as a community?  
  2. How can we build community when we are praying from our homes and unable to be together for services?  
  3. How can we transmit the grandeur of the moment through the computer screen?  
  4. What will people remember about these High Holy Days six months from now?  

As we seek to answer these questions, we have decided to go for a combination of live and pre-recorded services. The risks associated with the technology, the medical challenges of this moment, and the desire to provide a variety of experiences have driven this decision. Alongside that, in a year of financial uncertainty, we have decided that investing huge sums of money to ensure perfect lighting, multiple camera angles and a fully produced experience is neither responsible nor in line with our values and the way that the High Holy Days should feel. We have made some minor upgrades in our hardware (thanks to a CJP technology grant), which was thankfully of a good quality already, and we have decided to focus the investment on putting it all together, for an experience that will be new while still feeling familiar.

In answering these questions, we have considered the limitations of a service on the screen in terms of duration and content. We have focused on making liturgical choices to offer peak experiences, moments of grandeur and the familiarity of the tunes that people know. And we have provided resources to allow members of our community to create a Mikdash Me’at (a small Sanctuary) in their own homes, where they can experience the services. Among a variety of resources, we included candle holders and tealights so that we will all be illuminated by the same light, feeling a sense of communal connection.

These questions have allowed us to keep our focus on the values we hold as a community and guided the decisions we have had to make about the various elements and experiences. I believe we have created a High Holy Day experience that will be filled with joy and meaning, opportunities for reflection and pause, a chance to be together even when we’re apart.

When we think about “producing” the Holidays I am well aware that there will always be others out there who will be able to do it more “professionally,” with greater resources, providing a more polished experience. Those opportunities will be there for anyone who wants to avail themselves of them (our members included). But for members of our community (and guests) – they will be able to see the Clergy they know, join in with the tunes they recognize, and have a service experience that is both familiar and new. And they will do that in the context of a community. Because as we’ve always known, even in times of pandemic and social distance, it’s all about relationships – the relationships with the people on the screen and the people that they know are watching with them, even though they are not physically together.

Six months from now, I don’t think people will remember clearly what they saw on the screen. Instead, they’ll remember the experience of attending services on the sofa, turning their living room into the Sanctuary, and I hope, the feeling of community which was created despite the distance. These services will be experienced on the screen, but hopefully they will also be felt in the hearts and souls of everyone who joins us to watch and participate, welcoming the New Year as we always do, together.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA. He is committed to making Judaism relevant in the modern world and always looking for new ways to engage people with Jewish community. He has a weekly podcast “Two Minutes of Torah” and was a member of the UJA Federation of New York’s inaugural Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders.