Rosh Hashana 5781

My synagogue streamed its services, with some parts recorded in advance (like all the student torah readers) and some parts live. They assumed that people would check email and click links on Rosh Hashana (we say we're "inclusive" but we don't really mean it), and after much pushing I was able to get the stream link for Saturday morning mere moments before sundown Friday so I could set it up in advance.

During the service our (interim) rabbi said "this is live" and as proof, held up the day's New York Times. Which is how I found out the sad news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's passing. (And now I fear even more for our country.)

It did not feel like a service, which didn't surprise me. I mostly prayed on my own instead, sometimes badly (there's a lot of stuff we don't say the rest of the year so I'm not fluent), but I listened to the torah reading and the sermon. The stream froze near the end, during the announcements after the sermon and before Aleinu. All of which strengthened my resolve for today.

Even if the technology were to be reliable, I just plain do not consider this an option for Yom Kippur. My choices are to pray it at home, badly, and hope to somehow connect on the holiest day of the year against those odds, or to join people who are gathering in person. Last month I contacted the Chabad rabbi, explained my situation, and asked if there were any possibility that they would have socially-distant room for anybody beyond their regulars. (I said I was perfectly willing to do the Rabbi Hillel thing and stand outside an open window. Alas, the windows in their sanctuary do not open.) He said yes, so I made reservations for Yom Kippur and also for this morning -- Rosh Hashana is two days, so I figured (in advance) that if the first day bombed, I could at least go the second day, including hearing the shofar.

They set up the space carefully, with single chairs appropriately distanced and some clusters of chairs for family groups. (They required reservations from everyone, including indicating group size, so they could plan for this.) There was a sort of "tent" around the prayer leader -- clear heavy plastic walls but open at the top, well above people's heads. This is also where they read the torah. The people who had aliyot (torah honors) said the blessings from a safe distance. Singing was restrained. The shofar blower was well distanced, and I couldn't tell for sure but there might have been a cover of some sort on the end the air comes out. Everybody wore masks, including while inside that "tent". (I couldn't see what the shofar blower did.)

Only once before have I been to a Rosh Hashana service that wasn't Reform, and that one (Conservative) was early on when I didn't know very much yet. So I either forgot or never knew some things: that Unataneh Tokef is during the musaf service not the main one, that apparently there are liturgical differences between the two days (don't know what, but the book had "RH 1" and "RH 2" versions of the Amidah), and that the shofar service doesn't require the calls.

On that last: I'm used to somebody calling each note, so the caller says "tekiah" (for instance) and then the shofar-blower blows a "tekiah". This was different. The prayer book specified what the notes were, as expected, and the blower just blew them. The book also had instructions, one-third and two-thirds of the way through the first set, to silently confess here. It didn't provide words (like Vidui), so I interpreted that as free-form. And without the verbal distraction of somebody saying the names of the shofar calls, I could do that -- I could listen to the shofar, let it inspire me, say words to God against that backdrop, and feel like I was doing something. It was a powerful experience.

If, heaven forbid, we are still streaming services a year from now, I'll ditch my Reform congregation and go to an Orthodox service instead. It's possible that I'll do that anyway. Meanwhile, I can attend services for Yom Kippur in person, and based on what I felt today, it seems likely that I will have a meaningful experience. That's important to me in any year, but especially this year on the heels of events beyond my control ruining the high holy days for me last year.

Question for anybody who's read this far: how do you fill the gap on Yom Kippur afternoon? In the Before Times my synagogue had classes and usually a dramatic presentation of the Yonah story to fill the time, so you could show up in the morning and not leave until it was over. This year I'll need to fill a stretch of several hours in some way appropriate to the day.