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For Rosh Hashana, Baltimore-area rabbis faced with delivering sermons at transitional moment in COVID pandemic

Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen knows her words will carry a little extra weight this year during Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

This past year could’ve been one to forget for many, a time of isolation created by the coronavirus crisis, or a painful one for those who experienced profound loss caused by the pandemic. The beginning of the High Holy Days is a chance to remember and reset.

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“I’m thinking a lot about hope and moving forward in really difficult times, in uncertain times,” Sachs-Kohen said. “I’m also thinking about what are the opportunities, and how do we find those opportunities?”

Sachs-Kohen will deliver her first sermon Monday night in front of thousands expected at the 15th annual Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars, a popular, family-friendly service at Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore County hosted by the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Last year, the service was completely virtual. Organizers tout it as a new way to observe an ancient tradition.

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Many but not all congregants are elated to be back in person, Sachs-Kohen said. Those who aren’t yet ready will be able to observe the holidays remotely. Sachs-Kohen’s synagogue and several others in the Baltimore area have implemented vaccine and mask mandates for services, a sign of the transitional period in the pandemic where vaccinations are widely available yet the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread.

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen works in the courtyard Friday morning. She will give the sermon at the Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars service at Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore County on Monday. September 3, 2021
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen works in the courtyard Friday morning. She will give the sermon at the Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars service at Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore County on Monday. September 3, 2021 (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

That reality weighs on Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg as he prepares to deliver three sermons to his congregants at the Beth Am Synagogue in Northwest Baltimore. In some respects, delivering the right message this year will be more challenging than last, he said.

Last year, Burg said, they knew what was coming: COVID-19 vaccines seemed to be a ways off, meaning more masking, isolating and creatively keeping the faith community together during uncertain times spent mostly apart.

But this year, he said, they thought they’d have left behind virtual and outdoor services, perhaps in favor of a bustling sanctuary.

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Protecting yourself and others during holiday gatherings is a matter of lowering the risks associated with specific events, said Dr. David Marcozzi, COVID-19 incident commander for the University of Maryland Medical System. The easiest thing, he said, is to avoid travel, crowded indoor or outdoor spaces, and contact with unmasked and unvaccinated people.

“If you can do things outside, do them outside. If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you have to go inside, like for Rosh Hashana services in a synagogue to be together as a congregation, go but take precautions,” Marcozzi said.

“I’m thinking a lot about hope and moving forward in really difficult times, in uncertain times,” Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen said. “I’m also thinking about what are the opportunities, and how do we find those opportunities?”
“I’m thinking a lot about hope and moving forward in really difficult times, in uncertain times,” Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen said. “I’m also thinking about what are the opportunities, and how do we find those opportunities?” (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

That applies, he said, even to those who are vaccinated because the more contagious delta variant has led to “breakthrough” cases where people test positive after getting their shots.

Marcozzi recommended upgrading to KN95 or N95 masks, including for children, the youngest of whom are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. He encouraged social distancing for indoor services.

“Think about it in terms of hurdles,” he said. “The more hurdles you create, the less likely a virus gets to you or your children.”

Near the Baltimore County line in Northwest Baltimore, the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation is requiring preregistration for services, is limiting the sanctuary to 50% capacity, requiring proof of vaccination for indoor services, and masking and physical distancing. Vaccination is strongly encouraged for non-indoor services, including Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars.

In Reservoir Hill, Beth Am is hosting indoor, outdoor and virtual services this year. Burg said they’re requiring vaccination for all attendees 12 and older and masking at all times. The synagogue is capping attendance for services at 50%.

Come time to deliver his sermons, Burg said he’ll focus on a passage that translates to: “From the narrowness I cry out to God, and God responds from the expanse.”

“I’m talking about the narrowness and the ways we’ve felt constricted throughout the last year and a half and I’m talking about the expanse: What does it mean to move toward a sense of openness and normality, while also recognizing that while we do that, even if it’s a little more slowly and more iterative than any of us expected at this point, that we still bring a lot of trauma with us,” he said.

That would be true even if the public health guidance merited a complete return to normal, enabling a packed synagogue, said Burg, citing the losses and anxiety many endured.

“All of us have had every aspect of our lives affected by this pandemic, so we need to be honest about that with each other and the only way to come through that narrow place into the expansive place, the redemptive place, is to locate that trauma somewhere within ourselves so that we’re not ignoring it, but we’re also not letting it dominate our sights,” he said.

In Pikesville, the Beth Tfiloh Congregation will celebrate a century of High Holy Day services. The modern Orthodox synagogue is requiring adults to be fully vaccinated, while masks are mandated indoors and unvaccinated children won’t be allowed into the sanctuary. There will be specific services for children, the protocols of which have not yet been established, according to the congregation’s website.

“We are doing everything possible to encourage people to attend services, which we did not do last year,” said Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, describing the last year as “tough” because of all the risks and unknowns. “Attending services live, there’s a sense of community ... of being a part of something greater than ourselves. There’s a sense of being a participant rather than a spectator.”

Wohlberg’s approach to this year’s Rosh Hashana sermon, which may be his last as he is retiring as Beth Tfiloh‘s rabbi in residence after 43 years, differs from that of some other Baltimore-area rabbis.

It’ll focus on a “weakening of Jewish observance and identity” and how his congregants can recommit to those values, he said. “I think that our people — they need to go someplace and not hear about the coronavirus,” he said.

He recalled a fitting prayer traditionally recited as Jews usher in the new year:

“May the old year end with all of its curses. May the new year begin with all of its blessings.”

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