Despite social distancing, Jewish congregations found ways to connect during high holidays

Newton synagogues and temples are especially busy during Yom Kippur, and while worship spaces were mostly empty this year, congregations found ways to connect.

Most congregations utilized livestream platforms for widely attended morning services, with many synagogue homepages including links to live feeds and past recordings for anyone to access — in some cases, available to the public.

Temple Beth Avodah, a reform temple in Newton Centre, used YouTube Live for their morning service. Torah readings, interviews with congregants, and choral singing were pre-recorded, but Rabbi Keith Stern prioritized broadcasting live content. He said he wanted it to be “simple, accessible, and beautiful.”


“I wanted it to feel fresh, and I wanted the congregation to feel as close to being in the congregation as they could possibly be,” Stern said.

Beth Avodah member Jeff Tarmy said the virtual service was like an interactive movie based on a live play he had attended for years.

“The movie camera can get in closer than my sanctuary seats to see the emotion and sentiment of our Rabbi and cantor as they lead the service,” Tarmy said.

At Temple Reyim, a conservative temple in Auburndale, Congregational Board President Mara Bloom said there are advantages to remote programming that will be useful even after the pandemic. Livestreams might be a way to bring more people to worship than what was possible before.

“We have a lot of people who are older that would not feel comfortable coming in or have hearing issues,” Bloom said.

While livestreaming makes services more accessible, Rav-Hazzan Aliza Berger — a rabbi and cantor at Temple Emanuel, a conservative temple in Newton Centre — said she worries about how to keep her congregants engaged.

“We can livestream our services, that’s easy,” Berger said. “The hard part is, how do we build connections and have that sense of community?”


Congregations also are using Zoom for smaller, more intimate gatherings where it is easier to facilitate live interaction.

But Berger said being packed into a synagogue together and having a chance to talk in person are parts of the high holiday experience that cannot be fully replicated digitally.

“It’s the conversations in the hallways,” Berger said. “It’s the practice of bumping into people you don’t know and starting conversations.”

Bloom said she savored the ability to socialize, but at the same time, she has enjoyed changing it up this year. For instance, she said she decorated her living room with Jewish ritual items before the holiday.

“I was really able to focus more because I was so intentional about setting up the space and making it special,” Bloom said.

Yom Kippur, also called the Day of Atonement, marks the end of the Jewish high holidays. One of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is about repentance, fasting, and attending worship services.

Orthodox synagogues in Newton planned for in-person services with COVID-19 safety restrictions. For example, congregants at Beth El-Atereth Israel in Newton Centre could sign up for three separate services — which took place on both outdoor and indoor running tracks — sitting 6 feet apart and wearing masks.

Other synagogues are slowly adding more in-person events to their calendar. Temple Reyim created a Yom Kippur event for people to walk prescribed trails around Newton with their households, with prayers and reflective passages along the way.


Berger said the prayers remain the same no matter where people worship.

“In a year where everyone is so unsettled because our whole world has shifted upside down, there is something really grounding about knowing you can come home to Temple Emanuel,” Berger said.

Tarmy said prayer during Yom Kippur primarily deals with topics of reflection and forgiveness, which was “amplified” this year.

“I think the heightened tensions in our country has given me more to reflect on and ask for forgiveness for,” Tarmy wrote in an email.

Stern from Temple Beth Avodah said Yom Kippur was a time to reckon with the effects of the pandemic and widespread civil rights protests.

“I believe in a God who weeps 24 hours a day, who watches the death of the innocent, and particularly in this time of COVID, with the same kind of divine despair we feel as humans,” Stern said.

Berger said she wants her congregation to feel hopeful and gain inspiration from each other.

“If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that each one of us is stronger than we have ever imagined, and each one of us has more knowledge than we’ve ever imagined,” Berger said.

Sydney Brown can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.