Metro Detroit Jews mark 2nd Rosh Hashana in pandemic

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

To many Jews, Rosh Hashana is both the New Year and a chance to start over spiritually, ending old habits and recharging with new ones.

Worshipers welcome that guidance as the holiday starts Monday and lasts through Wednesday night, launching the High Holy Days they deem the most spiritually significant.

This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic lingering and virus variants surging across Michigan and nationwide, the faithful find the precautions they followed to safely celebrate in 2020 remain necessary to ring in the year 5782 on the Jewish calendar.

Cantor Rachel Gottlieb Kalmowitz, left, and Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, lead a service in song as Miller plays the guitar, Friday. The Jewish New Year starts at sundown Monday

That means masking up for services or seeking livestreams will be as familiar as the prayers and family meals typically marking the period.

“It is going to be easier this year because we’ve been through this,” said Larry Winer, an educator from Oak Park eager to join Rosh Hashana events this year. “We’ve had the experience. Most of us are doing what we feel we can do and are hoping for the best.”

Through Yom Kippur from Sept. 15-16, which end the High Holy Days, a number of Metro Detroit synagogues expect to host at least some in-person events while continuing to offer virtual options for congregants.

The aim, officials say, is to balance a sense of normalcy with the realities faced in another pandemic year.

Mark and Cathy Segel, left, worship with executive committee president of Temble Beth El Rochelle Nelson of Huntington Woods as Wolfgang and Stefani Goerlich, both of Sterling Heights,  face the back of the tent to see which way the bride will enter Friday night.

“I hope that for a lot of people being in services this year, whether in person or virtually, will be a moment when they can actually release themselves from living in a COVID world and focus on things that transcend,” said Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills. “The High Holy Days give people space, an opportunity to remember that there are things even more important than this.”

Rosh Hashana, or “head of the new year” in Hebrew, readies worshipers for penitence while bonding with relatives, friends, neighbors and the community. Congregations have strived to meet both amid the challenges of COVID-19.

Worshipers can sign in to Zoom or attend daily worship at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, which plans youth-centered musical services Monday and Tuesday under a tent at the nearby William Saulson Pavilion. Participants also can find yoga and other activities.

Masks are required, and “we are asking those who have not been vaccinated to stay home,” Rabbi Yoni Dahlen said.

While synagogue leaders are closely monitoring case numbers and preparing to modify the holiday schedule if needed, he added, they hope to keep options for gathering.

“There’s excitement and the longing and the need for people to get together, but there’s fear and uncertainty," Dahlen said. "… We just know this time in particular, it’s important to be able to lean on one another.”

Besides greeting each other in religious services or communal events, many Jews also find support during another much-anticipated feature of the New Year: family feasts.

The meals traditionally include foods such as apples to symbolize the “sweetness” of the time.

To prepare, Wayne State University’s Jewish Student Organization, affiliated with Hillel of Metro Detroit, ventured to Erwin Orchards in South Lyon on Friday to pick the fruit.

Since the group largely convened online last Rosh Hashana, “a lot of people are just excited to be able to have an in-person event and see each other and celebrate the Jewish New Year,” said its president, Loren Safta, 20, a Wayne State junior from West Bloomfield Township. “Everyone is really looking forward to connect with each other ... and reconnect to our Jewish roots and values.”

Similar unity-building festivities are planned at Temple Beth El, which has about 1,000 families.

The synagogue offers a mixture of in-person events, such as a courtyard labyrinth meditation, and online, such as a learning session on Yiddish folktales.

There are options on Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, as adherents focus on fasting, prayer and repentance to end the 10 High Holy Days, the time Jews believe God determines who lives, dies, succeeds or faces trials in the next 12 months.

Besides wearing masks, the temple’s board has determined that anyone age 12 or older must be fully vaccinated to attend High Holiday services inside the building this year, according to the website.

Miller of Temple Beth El estimates as many as 98% of the congregants have received a vaccine dose.

The figure dovetails with a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core that found Jewish Americans were the most likely religious group to accept the shots.

Coupled with the lingering restrictions, members “are doing pretty well,” the rabbi said. “Nobody likes that this is happening, but I think generally they understand that we’re on the rise again.”

The sensitivity is critical for longtime congregants such as Stefani Goerlich. The Sterling Heights resident’s 21-year-old son is awaiting a kidney transplant, so her family “had to be really careful about where we go, who we’re going to see,” she said. “We haven’t had company or friends over in going on two years. We haven’t seen family who haven’t been vaccinated because we can’t risk my son being exposed.”

Last year, they declined parties and worshiped through Zoom instead of meeting the often-larger holiday audience. “Missing out on that opportunity to see friendly faces, connect with people, see how their year was going, was surprisingly hard," Goerlich said.

Her family still expects to skip feasts but plans to attend the synagogue as well as a ceremony for Tashlich, the ritual casting off “sins” or shortcomings through tossing bread parts in water, at Franklin Cider Mill. 

Besides returning to the spot where she and her husband had their first date, Goerlich welcomes the ceremony, one of her favorite traditions, as a way to reflect. 

“I think that one of the important things of the holidays is not only owning your mistakes and working to repair those, but forgiving the things other people have done,” she said. “Watching how hostile people have become to doing things like getting vaccinated or wearing masks has really made me sit with my own feelings on that.

"So this year, I’m heading into this period of reflection thinking about how do I navigate those feelings and extend grace to those who have hurt me.”

Winer and his wife, a nurse, are vaccinated and plan to mask up for festivities this week.

He plans to dress for the changing weather if functions are held outdoors again like last year. But he doesn’t mind, pointing to the chance to unite with others.

“There is a heightened sense of awareness,” he said. “I’m far more worried about the collective rather than myself.”