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High Holy Days 2020 Behind the Scenes

Dear Friends,
In this letter, I invite you to join me “Behind the Scenes” of this year’s High Holy Day services.
Planning for this year’s High Holy Days was unlike anything we’d done previously. Let me state the obvious upfront. Livestream, online services, were nobody’s preference for observing the High Holy Days. When it became clear livestreaming our services was the necessary and most responsible choice, we set out to design the experience with input from many of you, and in conversation with our sister congregations here in San Diego, and around the country.
Listening to our colleagues and friends at other synagogues, we discovered some who assumed their members would not spend much time with them online. We heard about plans to truncate services. Others planned to present only a few symbolic moments. A number of congregations pre-recorded Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services to enable their members to view them when convenient. I respect every synagogue’s choice. This was a new and daunting challenge for all of us.
After all, we who are clergy, synagogue staff, and lay leaders could not know how you, our synagogue members and friends, would receive and engage in the online services we decided to provide. Once we knew our direction, last spring we hired a local video production company to assist us. If this was to be our path, we wanted to provide a high quality online experience during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
Our vision for our synagogue community was to provide our full flow of High Holy Day services and service features. Adapted a bit for the online setting. Enhanced a bit by the technology, too.
We figured, put a “real” service out there as best we could. Concentrate on the required core prayers and spiritually essential verses of each service sensitive to length of time but not constrained by it. Incorporate into our service some new elements of synagogue expression we hope will also be ours when we get together again. Let you, our online participants, decide how it would or would not meet your needs. Our assumption was everything we do in synagogue actually matters, in-person as we all prefer, or online as we did this year.
High Holy Day services at Congregation Beth El, and we hope Shabbat and other holiday services as well, include a variety of elements to enhance and amplify the traditional liturgy. Individuals offer Personal Prayers to model kavanah and prayerful intention. Thought pieces, interpretative writings, questions, and explanations seek to inspire and expand our focus. Themes and communal customs set up various service sections to inform personal interest. Musical presentations affect our mood and touch our spirits. We sing and speak together. We reflect and imagine individually.
Our task became trying to put all of this into a broadcast you would watch at home separated from each other and not in our sanctuary with me, Rabbi Libman, and David Lipsitz. With the help of our video production crew and gracious members, we pre-recorded the participation parts of our services: the Personal Prayers, the Presidents’ Kol Nidre Torah pageant, and the Blessing of Kohanim.
Sounding the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah presented a special problem. We did not plan to pre-record ritual acts and prayer. To create an authentic experience, we wanted to share them with you live on each holy day. Teens and adults read Torah and received Torah honors via Zoom Webinar merged into our livestream. But, we could not sound the Shofar inside due to COVID protocols, and for logistical reasons we decided not to use a portable camera to broadcast the Shofar blasts outside. As a result, our Ba’alei Tekiah also pre-recorded their participation.
We wanted to use video technology in two other ways. We asked you to submit photos which became a montage we showed before the Shofar Service on Rosh HaShanah, when we typically offer blessings to our families and children. Instead of coming up onto the bimah as they normally do, we asked parents of newborns to send in brief videos to introduce us to their babies, who are each so cute!
I’ve always believed we make too little use of visual stimuli in public prayer. Pictures of special places and memories, images of the natural world, and visually interpreting a prayer’s words, especially with the prevalence of screens and graphics in our daily lives, can clear our minds and help us to pray through emotion and sensation.
I also wondered what your home experience might be like during the quiet, private moments of prayerful reflection. My idea was to create the Visual Kavanot, videos of beautiful scenes accompanied by David Lipsitz’ recordings, we played during the silent portions of each Amidah and following our Yizkor Memorial Prayers.
It was a strange sensation speaking to a camera rather than a congregation while officiating at Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services. Though Avi, David, and I assumed and hoped we were speaking and singing to and with you, in real time we had no idea if you were with us and what you were doing.
We had put much effort into helping you be ready. We provided you with all service materials in advance. We gave you enrichment, ritual, and decorative items hoping you would create your own High Holy Day Home Haven in which to join with us online. As the producer and camera operators counted us down to being live online, and raised their fingers to direct our gaze into one of their four cameras, we hoped it would all come together in a meaningful and effective way.
For each service we broadcast we created a very elaborate service order. This “script” included when the different videos would play and when to message you with titles and schedule updates in the lower third of your screen, and even when Laurielynn Barnett was to open or close the Ark.
Since this was our sanctuary production crew's first exposure to Jewish ritual and the High Holy Days, my daughter Felicia, Ben Gelman-Chomsky, and Valentina Sharabi guided them. As David, Avi, and I sought to connect with you through their cameras, I don’t know what any of the crew were thinking. I do know they were wonderfully kind, respectful, and talented. Imagine our surprise when during one of our video breaks, they asked if David was going to sing Sim Shalom again. “We really like that one,” they told us.
This is but one of many surprises we remember from Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We are delightfully surprised by so many experiences you’ve told us about following the High Holy Days.
A number of you stayed online much longer than you anticipated you might. You attended parts of High Holy Day services you usually don’t. We’ve heard about unexpected focus, intention, and genuine kavanah. You let us know how you discussed and engaged with themes and ideas we presented. While missing each other, some of you enjoyed the quiet opportunity to reflect and think. A few of you even said you had much better seats and views at home than you have when onsite.
The mix of visual, intellectual, musical, emotional, and spiritual elements blended well to provide a complete experience, you’ve told us. You and we also learned this. As individuals we can be responsible for own religious experiences, perhaps more so than we’ve previously given ourselves permission to do. We crave and require community. Even so, we each can be and are responsible for our personal engagement with Jewish tradition and practice.
Rabbi Libman, David Lipsitz and I are humbled and grateful you joined with us for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur in such a unique way. Though we missed being together with you in person, we delight in all of the stories, insights, and experiences so many of you have shared with us. Together, with imagination and intention, you and we found deep meaning and genuine inspiration during the recent High Holy Days.
I hope we are more together than apart for next year’s High Holy Day services. I suspect we may be looking at a hybrid experience, some together and some online. There’s no way to know now, and no reason to speculate.
I hope we hold onto the insights and meanings we all discovered this year and apply them in planning and celebrating every next and new sacred season and year of our lives. One thing is for sure. Welcoming the Jewish year 5781 is a High Holy Day season you and I will never forget!
Shanah Tovah!
Rabbi Ron Shulman
Click Here to View High Holy Day Videos
Click Here to read or listen to Rabbi Ron Shulman's High Holy Day Sermons
Sun, September 19 2021 13 Tishrei 5782