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High Holy Days in COVID-19 pandemic: 'It’s just really different'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Normally, Ariana Mentzel welcomes Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, worshiping at her synagogue and gathering for meals with others.

But the coronavirus that has upended lives around the world has forced the Beverly Hills resident and temples to infuse the holidays with a nod to the pandemic.

Rabbi Josh Bennett holds a Torah during the filming of a video inside the sanctuary of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, September 8, 2020.

As the holiday starts at sundown Friday, she and other Jews across the area are trading packed pews and lavish dinners for mostly virtual services and notably smaller affairs.

“It’s just really different, but we’re adapting,” Mentzel said. “The main difference will be just how much more condensed the holiday is going to feel in terms of the amount of community and family that we’ll be exposed to.”

Rosh Hashana ushers in the year 5781 as well as the High Holy Days, which conclude with Yom Kippur on Sept. 27-28 and are considered some of the most important periods in the Jewish calendar.

It is typically a reflective time, and concerns about COVID-19 have pushed followers as well as congregations across Metro Detroit to rethink aspects of their observances to stay safe while also keeping the traditions and communal ties that sustain them each year.

Cantor Michael Smolash is filmed as he blows a shofar during a Rosh Hashana service inside the sanctuary of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield this month. Due to COVID-19, instead of attending services in person, congregants will view the videos online.

“In the pandemic, that’s the one thing we’re really missing is being connected to people,” said Rabbi Marla Hornsten of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield Township. “It’s a tremendous sense of loss to not be able to come together. For all these years, it’s been a constant, to be able to go to the temple. … People want that back and to be what it was.”

Hornsten’s synagogue has worked to duplicate the experience of its sizable membership uniting for worship. Officials logged many hours pre-recording programs they will post online, she said, adding while “every service is very different than it would be in person, it is our hope that will be powerful and meaningful for people."

Restrictions haven’t entirely trounced in-person activities, though. Temple Israel plans to open the sanctuary for private reflection at times throughout the High Holy Days, and on Sunday, families can reserve slots to observe a socially distanced Tashlich, the ritual during which “sins” or shortcomings are cast off by tossing bread bits into water.

“We want people to connect as much as possible,” Hornsten said.

The Well, a Jewish community-building initiative based in Metro Detroit, plans another way to present the ancient Tashlich custom amid COVID-19 for young adults.

Cantor Michael Smolash prepares to select a shofar, which is blown like a trumpet, while he participates in the filming a Rosh Hashanah service inside the sanctuary of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Sept. 8, 2020.

Besides a virtual offering, the group is scheduled to host at least 15 “Tiny Tashlich” sessions starting this weekend at various locations in the area.

Guided by “Silent Disco” headphones, participants in groups no larger than 10 are steered to multiple stations and walked through a process featuring traditional texts, dissolvable paper, ocean-scented candles as well as other items to engage each of their senses, said Marisa Meyerson, operations manager for The Well.

In the second half, Rabbi Jeff Stombaugh, the group’s executive director, leads a planting activity before attendees leave with a potted plant of herb or vegetable as well as a bag of seasonally themed snacks.

(From left) Cantor Michael Smolash, Rabbi Josh Bennett, and Cantor Niel Michaels participate in the filming of a video of a Rosh Hashanah service inside the sanctuary of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Sept. 8, 2020.

The event follows through on The Well’s core pillar to “make Jewish ritual and tradition feel relevant and meaningful for young adults and doing that in a new and innovative way,” Meyerson said. “Doing it in a pandemic shows how important it is. Jewish life and tradition doesn’t have to be the way they always thought it was or how their parents and grandparents do it. There are always new ways to look at them and share in the community.”

Upholding the practices, even at a distance, has meant months of creative preparation at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills.

Ahead of the holiday, volunteers delivered bags bearing apples, honey and other items associated with the New Year to members at their homes. Meanwhile, services are scheduled for live-streaming from the synagogue, Rabbi Mark Miller said. And on Friday, the faithful will further be linked through an online Rosh Hashana seder, a meal usually unveiled during the Passover holiday.

“We believe strongly there’s an authenticity of being together in that moment — even if not in space, in time,” Miller said. “My feeling is that during this pandemic, people are generally looking for the ability to connect with the community and a divine presence.”

The placemat Temple Beth El members are using Friday.

Sara Tatchio, who has attended Temple Beth El for more than 30 years, appreciates the synagogue mixing the traditional with newer approaches and has become acclimated to turning to virtual worship. Still, she misses the holiday atmosphere of heading to the building.

“I have a group that sits in the same area and always go to the group to sit and visit with them, so that social aspect is much harder to duplicate,” the Royal Oak resident said.

Mentzel also wonders when she, her husband and their two daughters can resume full-time worship at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, which this holiday has a mixture of in-person and virtual events. For now, they content themselves with scaled-down dinners at relatives’ home to feast on challah and other traditional goods reminding them to mark a new year.

“I almost see this as a hopefully new beginning,” she said. “It’s a good time to have a new year — to have a new sense of hope and to actually look forward to what can be.”