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Baltimore-area Orthodox rabbis work around electronics ban in planning for Yom Kippur in the coronavirus era

Rabbi Yisrael Motzen talks about continuing services beneath the tent of Ner Tamid synagogue.

For half a year now, faith leaders in Baltimore and beyond have summoned new reserves of creativity in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

They’ve mastered Zoom and other communications platforms. They’ve held drive-thru confessions, displayed holy objects from trucks, and sanitized prayer rugs and pews.

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And this weekend, as the holiest day on the Jewish calendar arrives, the Baltimore area’s most strictly observant Jewish community will see changes in practice to fit the requirements of their faith.

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, which begins at sundown Sunday and lasts through Monday evening, calls for fasting, self-reflection, and in ordinary times, formal services in synagogues.

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Many of Baltimore’s more than 95,000 Jewish residents will attend such services via computer screen this year, thanks to continuing fears around the pandemic.

But the Orthodox won’t have that option. Traditional Jewish law prohibits the use of modern technology during holidays, so if Orthodox Jews are to attend services, they must do so in person.

Rabbis are adapting in a range of ways to make that possible. Some plan to hold outdoor services Sunday night and Monday. Others will work under tents, broadcast across parking lots or hustle among rotating services.

Whatever their methods, one rabbi says, the goal will be the same one Jewish leaders have sought during difficult times throughout history: to keep traditions of the faith alive no matter the conditions.

“Oppression of various kinds is nothing new to the Jewish people, and that includes pandemics,” says Mitchell Wohlberg, longtime senior rabbi of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Pikesville. "Whether it was the Black Plague of the 1300s or the influenza outbreak in the early 20th century, we’ve always looked at pandemics as times to buckle down and survive.

“This year has been unbelievable in so many ways of its own. Sometimes it feels as though everything has been turned upside down. And yet, you find a way to make it work."

About 21% of Baltimore’s Jewish population identify as Orthodox, one of the highest figures among American cities, according to a study published in May by The Associated Jewish Federation of Baltimore, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and enhance Jewish life.

The core belief in Orthodox Judaism is that the Torah — the Five Books of Moses, its additional 613 commandments, or mitzvot, and several volumes of subsequent scholarly commentary — represent the infallible word of God.

By following proper action as defined in Jewish law — attending services three times a day, for example, and refraining from work on the Sabbath — the Orthodox believe their lives can become expressions of God’s will.

The 31% who identify as Modern Orthodox, according to the Pew Research Center, carry out most of the same core beliefs but in a less formal manner.

Both adhere to one key principle when it comes to the Sabbath, and to Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur — the importance of keeping them holy by eschewing both work and modern conveniences, including computers.

That’s why, when the coronavirus arrived in Baltimore in early March, it struck the Orthodox community especially hard.

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After Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order limiting the size of indoor gatherings to 10 people, other faith traditions were able to develop ways of livestreaming or otherwise sharing videos of important services. Area Catholics and Episcopalians could view live Sunday webcasts, for example, and some non-Orthodox synagogues went online for Sabbath services.

But Orthodox Jews lost their means of celebrating the holiest day of their week.

Some Orthodox synagogues joined the telecommunications era for such services as lectures, counseling sessions and community meetings. But Sabbath services — a day that, for Jews, parallels God’s decision to rest and admire his creation — stayed dark for months.

Yisrael Motzen, senior rabbi of Ner Tamid-Greenspring Valley Synagogue in Pikesville, says that was a painful development for many in his 63-year-old congregation.

“Our synagogue is a microcosm of the country,” Motzen says of the Orthodox shul. “We have all kinds of congregants, and they’ve been suffering. People who are feeling lonely or stressed out, maybe from taking care of the kids, tend to turn to their spiritual home as a place of support. When their spiritual home is not open, it’s devastating.”

Motzen says volunteers from Ner Tamid have spent months making regular phone calls to members who live alone or delivering Sabbath meals to the elderly.

“So many people have been made prisoners in their homes," he says. “Just a few minutes of human interaction is unfortunately so rare for them right now. We’ve been doing what we can to maintain connection.”

As month gave way to month, coronavirus numbers improved, and Hogan and government health officials eased restrictions on the size of indoor gatherings, some Orthodox rabbis began holding modified services on synagogue grounds, including on the Sabbath.

Beth Tfiloh began offering drive-in services on weekdays — and severely restricted, socially distanced Shabbat services in its 1,600-seat sanctuary — in early June. Ner Tamid, where the sanctuary can hold more than 400 in normal times, resumed Sabbath services in its social hall later in the month. The space holds 85 socially distanced people.

Even now, rabbis are careful to caution members not to come if they have the slightest health concern, as Jewish law places a higher value on personal safety than on observance. But as the High Holidays approached, interest has grown.

Shalom Zirkind founded Chabad of Hunt Valley, an Orthodox congregation in the Chabad-Lubavitch tradition, in 2017 with an eye toward bringing the faith to a mostly non-Jewish portion of the Baltimore area.

His congregation, with a membership in the dozens, lacks a dedicated building, but in normal times, congregants meet in the Zirkinds' five-bedroom home in Cockeysville.

They hadn’t gathered for months, but a quick survey of members told Zirkind there was overwhelming interest in getting back together for Rosh Hashana, the celebration of the Jewish New Year that precedes Yom Kippur by 10 days.

Zirkind pitched a rented tent in his driveway, spaced folding chairs inside and out per a physician’s instruction, and presided over a shorter-than-usual service that drew 30 people.

It didn’t touch the previous year’s attendance of 100, but those who came, he says, were enthusiastic about being back together after so long.

“Thank goodness the weather was nice,” he says. “Everyone was comfortable indoors and outdoors. It worked out beautifully."

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“This year has been unbelievable in so many ways of its own. Sometimes it feels as though everything has been turned upside down. And yet, you find a way to make it work."


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For Yom Kippur, rabbis are developing plans that suit the needs of their individual synagogues, Wohlberg says, both theologically and logistically.

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With a membership of about 3,500, Beth Tfiloh bills itself as the largest Modern Orthodox synagogue in the country.

Wohlberg’s reading of Jewish law tells him that certain High Holiday observances may be shared electronically, as long as they’re not on Yom Kippur itself — he’ll prerecord and predistribute a sermon, for example. Services will be held indoors for about 150 people.

At Ner Tamid, officials have spent weeks planning for the holiday. Services will be held not in the sanctuary, which was ruled too unwieldy a space, but in the smaller social hall and in a rented tent on the grounds.

The temple will hold four overlapping services, two indoors (at 7 a.m. and 9:15 a.m.) and two in the tent (8 a.m. and 11 a.m.), each 2½ hours long. Motzen and a cantor will “jump from place to place,” arriving at each as the liturgy requires.

Volunteers have constructed versions of the barriers that divide women from men during services, setting them up in the makeshift synagogues, and officials have found and cleaned an old portable ark — a chest that holds Torah scrolls — to deploy in the tented space.

Like Rifkind in Hunt Valley, Motzen is hoping for good weather, and he’s praying Ner Tamid can match the synagogue’s attendance of 280 on Rosh Hashana.

As long as it happens safely, he says, he’ll count it as a blessing.

“The pandemic has been a terrible tragedy, but at least these holidays have shown me that people are still craving that human connection,” Motzen says. “It has forced us to appreciate what it means to be part of a community.”

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