Congregations visualize High Holidays

“The service is real, it is the gathering that is virtual.” ~ Rabbi Michael Cahana 


With the High Holidays less than two months away and the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of going away, congregations are exploring ways to observe these 10 Days of Awe safely and meaningfully.
“As the summer progresses and, sadly, the pandemic which brought us to this point has not abated, we join with synagogues around the country and the world in recognizing that the High Holidays this year will have to be experienced very differently than it has in the past,” says a letter from Congregation Beth Israel’s clergy. “But such is the resiliency and creativity of the Jewish people – we have found new ways to engage and connect.”
Portland’s two largest congregations – Beth Israel and Neveh Shalom – have announced plans for online services with some opportunities for small group connections. Havurah Shalom, which normally rents a large venue and opens services to everyone, will also have online services this year. All three congregations are opening their virtual services to everyone.
Since gathering all 860 families into its beautiful, historic sanctuary seems impossible, Congregation Beth Israel decided to present this year’s High Holiday services online. “While we could potentially limit the number of people present, that exclusivity goes against our ideals of inclusion,” says Beth Israel Senior Rabbi Michael Cahana. “We are not limiting participation in any way; to be inclusive is part of the message we want to create.”
Beth Israel has streamed its Shabbat service for the past few years, but with the shift to all virtual services, the congregation has found new ways to enhance virtual connections. Now the number of people who join Shabbat services on YouTube, Facebook Live and other channels exceeds the number of people who would typically attend Friday evening services at the synagogue.
For the High Holidays, Rabbi Cahana says the clergy are suggesting ways to help people create the holiday experience in their home.
“Watching on a big screen TV is much better than on a laptop; YouTube is the easiest because it is built into many smart TVs,” says the rabbi. “Set up space, dress for it, stand and sit with the group – even when you can’t see them.”
“The service is real, it is the gathering that is virtual,” Rabbi Cahana says.
“We know that something will be lost through this virtual reality, but something will also be gained,” says Rabbi Cahana. He notes the virtual services will be more inclusive since some of the barriers that keep people away from synagogue will be removed. “Driving, parking, poor health, wondering if you are allowed – now you can just join in.”
Congregants will have to opportunity to film messages to the congregation and to sing parts of the service, which Rabbi Cahana says will be incorporated into the community experience.
Clergy are also looking at various models to encourage community in smaller settings on Zoom. For instance, they hope to plan a Zoom oneg after Rosh Hashanah services, where people can enjoy their oneg at home but gather in small breakout rooms on Zoom for conversations.
“Part of what people miss is being together in community, so we want to create that,” says Rabbi Cahana.
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“While we are still working hard and dreaming about what is possible, things are different this year,” reads a July 9 email from Neveh Shalom clergy, leadership and staff. “Our HHD experience will largely happen using online platforms with some in-person opportunities.”
“Every service will be online with Zoom or Livestream,” says Neveh Shalom Associate Rabbi Eve Posen. “In-person events are add on opportunities. We don’t want people to feel they are missing out on any essential High Holiday experience.”
Any in-person experiences are being “driven by health care professionals and physicians who look at the science and decide what it is safe to be doing in our space and what is not.”
In-person experiences being considered include a young family drive in for Erev Rosh Hashanah. “People will stay in their cars, and we will limit the numbers of families and have signups for contact tracing,” says Rabbi Posen.
Small neighborhood gatherings for tashlich are also being explored, she says. “We hope to set up different neighborhood captains – people who live near a creek or the Willamette River. We will send captains a service we put together, and they can set a time and location and say join us. People will bring their own bread and stay socially distant.” 
The congregation is also exploring a social action project for teens on Erev Yom Kippur. Like other in-person programs, the congregation’s medical professionals are considering what would be safe.
“At some point we hope to open the sanctuary to a family at a time to allow small 10-minute windows with the Torah and maybe say hi to clergy to make it feel more personal,” she says.
Neveh Shalom also plans to provide opportunities for community members to share reflections via video for HHD services.
Within a month the congregation expects to have detailed information about High Holy Days, including how to access services, yizkor/memorial book, machzor/prayer book availability, lulav and etrog ordering, and more. 
Online services will be open to all, but a password is required. For the password and schedule, email For updates, visit
Havurah Shalom’s High Holidays this year will be fully accessible online. All offerings will take place in Havurah’s new online space, which will be both secure and, in keeping with the congregation’s tradition, open to members of the broader Jewish community. For many years Havurah Shalom has rented a space large enough to welcome the community to free High Holiday services, often hosting more than 1,100 worshippers.
Havurah will provide opportunities for reflection, connection and engagement through a wide array of services and programs. To meet the needs of this moment and the different experience of interacting solely through technology, the congregation plans “a rich slate of shorter services and programs with interludes to allow people to step in and out. Additional contemplative resources will be available on demand.”
Havurah’s season of offerings will be accessible from Elul through Simchat Torah. 
“We are excited to bring our community and the larger Portland Jewish community a welcoming and innovative High Holidays experience,” according to the Havurah Shalom High Holidays Committee.
Details on how to participate will be available soon on Havurah Shalom’s website


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