Last year, Rabbi Rachael Bregman marked Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year celebration, surrounded by light, song and congregants at Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick. It will be a very different scene this year as the sun sets Friday.
Crowds will not be gathered at the historic synagogue, nor will their halls overflow with food and fellowship as the High Holy Days commence. Like so many things, the coronavirus pandemic has forced Bregman to recast the observance this year, opting instead for virtual services to ensure the safety of temple members.
“We’re going to be meeting virtually because it doesn’t yet feel safe to gather in person. As a religious institution, I think there’s an idea that we have special dispensation from God ... that we can be protected because we’re engaged in acts of faith. But that’s not the case,” she said.
“The truth is that we live out our faiths all the time in life and being in a synagogue doesn’t give us special protection because we’re in God’s house. We’re actually in God’s house all the time when you think about it. So we don’t want to take on that extra risk. I would be devastated if anything happened to one of my congregants. It’s a responsibility that I don’t want to take on.”
But that doesn’t mean that the temple won’t come together. Instead of sitting in the pews, gazing at the Ner Tamid (eternal flame) or the ark, they will cultivate a sense of the sacred within their own homes and log on to listen to sermons and share “shanah tovahs,” Hebrew for “happy new year.”
“Really ever since we started having virtual services we started looking at where in our homes we could sit that feels good and comfortable to pray. Instead of looking at the ark or the flame, we’re finding ways to represent that eternal light in our homes ... whatever that means to each person,” she said.
Rosh Hashanah is a joyful occasion often associated with the eating of sweets and the baking of challah. This year, the synagogue will offer a virtual tutorial on how to make the classic Jewish bread in an online forum.
“As with so many holidays, food is really important. Carla Bluhm, one of our congregants, has started baking her own bread during the pandemic so she will lead it. For the holy days, it’s round with raisins in it to represent a sense of fullness,” she said. “We’re going to team up with the Savannah Bee Co. for it too, since the honey represents the sweet.”
The Savannah Bee Co. isn’t the only business that Temple Beth Tefilloh will be collaborating with during the period. Bregman says a number of companies, as well as local churches, are stepping up to help them mark the occasion.
“Our friends at the Village Oven are making honey cakes that will be sent to the homes of our congregants. Tanya Sergey at A Moveable Feast is making our meals for the holy days for our community-wide breaking of the fast,” she said. “We’re incredibly grateful for that.”
Bregman is also thankful for the support of the broader faith community.
“We have such great friends in the community. Christ Church Frederica is doing our audio recording for us so we can have music. It was incredibly generous of them to do that,” she said.
After Rosh Hashanah, congregant members will engage in reflection and introspection that ends 10 days later on the somber Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Together, they represent the journey of life and death — the beginning and the end.
It is a time to take a serious inventory of one’s life and to identify changes that should be made. A key concept, too, Bregman notes, is finding ways to make amends and form connections with others.
“This year, the preparation for the High Holy Days has been about building community and loving partnerships with others internally and externally. We’re really fortunate to be able to do that through technology and also to do that with the partners we have like the Village Oven, A Moveable Feast, Savannah Bee Co. and Christ Church Frederica,” she said.
In addition to encouraging a sense of community, Bregman is also offering sermons that are aimed at generating hope in what has been a very dark period.
“It’s not the only way it can be done, but it can help. It’s can be easy to lose hope right now. This is a marathon and not a sprint. We have to have the energy to sustain the work of living sacred lives throughout all of the challenges we’re facing,” she said.
“So we really need to bulk up our hope-building tool kit. One of the biggest things is learning that we have the power to approach whatever challenges come our way.”
A large part of that is by taking ownership of one’s ability to choose the path ahead.
“We can choose to despair or we can make the choice to shift the orientation toward patience, optimism and toward transformation. We can shift it toward connection which is what will get us through the hardest times — whether it’s a global pandemic or deep personal loss,” she said.
“It has really been beautiful to see the community come together to do the extra work of making the magic of the holy days happen and taking that sense of partnership and responsibility to each other to make this year extraordinary.”