How DC-area synagogues are planning safe, meaningful Jewish holiday experiences

For Rabbi Steven Rein, the approaching High Holiday season has emerged as the most logistically-complicated to date.

Before the pandemic, services at Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Virginia, brought about 900 people together to observe Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

But in the midst of the pandemic last year, Rein said, the holiday services were only available virtually. With the help of a video production company, Rein said, the livestream proved to be a meaningful experience.

As the summer progressed, Rein said he hoped the synagogue would be able to hold in-person services this year, largely because COVID-19 vaccinations had cases in the region declining.

In August, though, Rein said the synagogue chose to plan for limited capacity this year. Proof of vaccination or a negative test result will be required for the 250 people attending in-person services. For everyone else, services will again be streamed.

The circumstances reflect the complexities D.C.-area congregations faced as they planned for among the busiest prayer services of the year. With coronavirus cases rising again and kids not yet eligible to be vaccinated, there wasn’t one easy way to proceed.

Rosh Hashana begins at sundown Monday, and Yom Kippur starts the night of Sept. 15.

“In many ways, planning all-virtual services logistically is much simpler,” Rein told WTOP. “You have your camera, everyone’s at home and there’s not a lot of moving pieces. In the past, High Holidays were always complex, but you kind of had a playbook you could go to. Now, you’ve got to reinvent the wheel on the fly.”

At Agudas Achim, that means everyone attending in person will also have to wear a mask, doors will be open to improve ventilation and families will sit in pods.

At Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, Maryland, Rabbi Marc Israel said similar protocols will be in place. The 250-family congregation held online services last year and will welcome about 200 people for High Holiday services this year. Masks will be required, chairs will be spaced apart and there will be outdoor options.

“People are having to make a lot of decisions for themselves, in terms of their own comfort level,” Israel told WTOP. “We’re trying to provide options for people at each of those levels. That required its own new, creative thinking to try to make sure that we’re hitting it at each of the levels.”

Sixth & I synagogue in D.C. is using a comparable approach, allowing attendees the opportunity to attend virtually or in person. Last year, spokeswoman Michelle Eider said in an email, more than 4,500 tickets to virtual services were sold. A similar number of attendees is expected this year.

The synagogue is requiring proof of vaccination at all in-person events, starting with the High Holidays. A recent negative test result will also be accepted, and masks are required.

Eider said the flexibility is important, because “everyone is experiencing this moment differently.”

In addition to attending in-person or virtual services, Rein and Israel said, something as simple as having an outdoor coffee or meal with a friend or family member can help make the holiday time meaningful.

As families continue to navigate the pandemic, Rein, in Alexandria, said he continues to be asked when things will get back to normal. It’s a topic he plans to address during High Holiday services, and one he said is highly relevant to the theme of the holidays.

“I keep thinking the answer is we’re not, we’re not going back,” Rein said. “A crisis like this one, a catastrophe like this one changes us. The question for us to think about is ‘What are the ways in which we feel that we are changing and moving forward?”

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Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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