Planning for the High Holidays was especially challenging for Evanston’s synagogues in 2020, as the COVID -19 pandemic has shown no signs of abating. Leaders at both Beth Emet and Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) were this year faced with planning religious services for an occasion that is by definition about gathering together as a community to reflect on the year that’s past and reflect on the year ahead.

“They’re the biggest holidays of the year and they’re really the touch-points for people in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet. “They come back in, and hear the melodies that they are accustomed to, and to see everybody. To me, Rosh Hashanah is like a big family reunion that people look forward to every year.”

Rabbi London noted that, even for Jews who might not be observant, the holidays sometimes still contain familiar and comforting signifiers, such as the blast of the shofar, or ram’s horn, that marks the beginning and end of various occasions.

“There are some real “signposts” to being Jewish,” she added. “One of those is the shofar, and we find ourselves asking, ‘How can we have a year without a shofar? For some people it’s a very spiritual moment, and for other people it’s a very cultural moment: ‘This is who I am, and this is an expression of my people.’”

Rabbi Rachel Weiss of JRC said that her synagogue’s clergy, staff and parishioners were faced with the same considerations. 

She explained, “For the last six months, we’ve been asking ourselves and our members, ‘What is essential, particularly as we’ve had to recreate and re-imagine so much?’ We were trying to find out what is at the heart of what we really need to do. The thing that our community, through our High Holidays outreach, said that they missed the most is the community and seeing each other.”

Rabbi Weiss and others at JRC concluded that, more so than any ritual, liturgy or piece of music, they would have to capture particular emotions. She added, “It’s about cultivating a feeling of connectedness and togetherness.”

High Holidays are a labor-intensive occasion in any synagogue in a normal year, but when the community cannot be physically together, numerous new challenges arose.

Rabbi London said it was important for her to be able to speak from the actual synagogue; she had concluded that “people are tired of seeing my bookshelves” over online services.

To minimize the possibilities for technical gaffes, the majority of the streamed content will be pre-recorded, with Rabbi London and Cantor Kyle Cotler both appearing from various locations in the synagogue. Cantor Cotler’s father, Douglas, is also a renowned cantor and will be performing at times alongside his son.

Beth Emet also plans a number of socially-distanced in-person events over the course of the high holidays, among them a Tashlich (a ritual where sins are symbolically cast off) service and a food-drive.

“We looked at each service and asked, ‘What is important for the High Holidays?’” Rabbi London said. “So each service is going to focus on a theme: For example, Rosh Hashanah [Eve] is about the creation of the world, our connection with all of creation and the unity and wholeness of a universal message. Rosh Hashanah morning is about the coronation of God as king, and how we understand that metaphor in a Reform [Judaism] context: ‘What does it mean to call God “king?”’ We’re exploring that theme, too.”

Thanks to help from a congregant who is a broadcast professional, JRC’s services will be streamed “live,” with Rabbi Weiss and Cantor Howard Friedland appearing from different locations in the synagogue. The clergy had considered a broadcast from United Methodist Church, where JRC’s High Holiday Services are usually held, but getting adequate bandwidth to go online from there proved daunting. JRC will also hold a real-time, socially-distanced Tashlich gathering.

“This is the benefit of who we are as Jews – we adapt,” said Rabbi Weiss. “...You should see the production spreadsheet that we have.”

She added, “We always say, ‘This is not a show.’ It’s not about being perfect. This is about being real. We are trying to celebrate a new year and trying to reflect on the things we’ve done wrong – in the middle of a pandemic. What we really need to do is have hope and work on the healing.”

Rabbi London said one advantage of this year’s format is it opens up more possibilities for community viewing and participation. 

“We hope that it will feel warm, communal and inviting,” she added. “With the message of renewal and rebirth – even though it doesn’t feel like it when we are in the same situations we were in six months ago – we want to find that spiritual center, and exploring how to grow at this time.” 

High Holidays begin the evening of Sept. 18. Anyone wishing additional information on Beth Emet and JRC services may visit bethemet.org or jrc-evanston.org