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High Holidays in the Midst of COVID-19

celebrating high holidays during covid-19

When we celebrated Passover in April, many of us thought “Well, things will be normal again by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” Unfortunately those hopes did not come to pass and we now have to plan for a different way to approach this year’s High Holy Days. We have to face our disappointed expectations and turn to accept a new way to enter the New Year. 

Most of the services in Pittsburgh will be virtual as the congregations have been doing weekly for some months now. High Holiday services usually have a larger attendance and for some congregants, it may be their first service on Zoom. For those having services in person, the sanctuaries will be much emptier than ever before. 

Some of the service may be live and on platforms like Zoom, and some may be livestreamed on YouTube. Some may be in person but with fewer songs sung. All of it is familiar and yet so very unfamiliar. It’s essential to realize that this is a loss to many people but also that they are not alone in feeling that loss. 

How does one then take these losses and transform them into holiness? By focusing on the crux of the days. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the holiest days in our Jewish calendar. It is a time of rebirth, renewal, and revitalization. It is a time when we ask, What can we change about ourselves and our lives to become better people? One of the repeating parts of the service reminds us that Repentance, Prayer and Charity remove the evil decree. This phrase which is found in prayer books worldwide brings us to the main focus of the day. 

Teshuvah: Repentance and fasting are solitary activities. No matter where we stand and speak the Vidui Confession, and repeat the offenses of which we are guilty, we do it quietly as those are our singular burdens to bear. We focus on what we need to improve in ourselves.

Tefilah: Prayer is being done virtually on a daily basis and we can continue to embrace the technology that allows groups to maintain the contact even while being apart. These Yamim Noraim will be the same – spiritual connection to the congregations through technological connection.

Tzedakah: If repentance is individual, and prayer is congregational, charity is the part that allows us to touch groups larger than ourselves. It is communal. Its reach is infinite and vast. We can affect countless people without infecting countless people. It can be in memory or in honor of someone we love or just because we want to bring goodness into this world. Charity remains the same no matter how we attend services. 

So in these days of uncertainty, let us turn to the tradition as we do each year and find our stability in that which grounds us. We wish you and yours a happy and healthy new year. May we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life. 


Stefanie Small, Director of Clinical Services, JFCS