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‘A different experience for everyone’: Fulton synagogue to celebrate Jewish High Holy Days virtually

Rabbi Craig Axler was at Temple Isaiah in Fulton until 2:45 a.m. Monday putting finishing touches on the High Holy Days services.

However, the start of the High Holy Days — Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur — were still five days away. This was Axler’s reality: planning for the fall Jewish holidays during the coronavirus pandemic.

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“When we were approaching the High Holy Days, we had to think about them in the moment of [the] coronavirus and we thought of keeping everyone safe,” said Axler, who has led Temple Isaiah for seven years. “It was very clear that the idea of having upwards of 1,000 to 1,200 people come through the building in the course of those days was not going to be possible.”

So instead this year, Axler hired a Howard County-based production company, Lasser Media, to bring the holidays to life safely in congregants’ homes across the county. The services have been pre-tapped and will be released online beginning at 7:30 p.m. Friday for those congregants who registered.

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Axler, a Clarksville resident, said these holidays are among the most celebrated in the Jewish faith, a time for introspection and spiritual connection, pushing him to think about the best ways to celebrate given the circumstances. Rosh Hashana marks the beginning of the Jewish calendar year, and Yom Kippur is a fast from sundown to sundown that begins 10 days later.

“We’re wrestling with how to do these really important and central holidays, and how to make them meaningful for their membership and their communities,” Axler said.

Since March, the synagogue has hosted most of its events and meetings through the Zoom videoconferencing app. While Axler said the platform works, there are technical difficulties and muting issues that made it a less-than-appealing choice for the important holidays.

He connected with Ricky Lasser, a congregant member who owns Lasser Media. Lasser, a Baltimore resident, was working on another project with the congregation and Axler before the pandemic struck, so when Axler reached out about the holidays, they put together a plan.

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They decided to videotape all the parts of the services inside Temple Isaiah. Then when services would normally take place, they will put the services up online for congregants to access and participate in.

Michelle Ostroff, a Clarksville resident and the religious affairs vice president at Temple Isaiah, has been working to get the word out about this year’s services by electronically delivering High Holy Days packets.

“In a regular year in person, we run two consecutive services on the day of Rosh Hashana and the day of Yom Kippur, so we needed to make sure that everyone knew that because we’re virtual, they’re one service that everyone can tune into on Rosh Hashana morning,” Ostroff said.

“Knowing how challenging synagogue services were with Zoom, I thought it was a great idea to produce and pre-tape something so that it could be seemly and uninterrupted and people could focus on prayer and reflection rather than, ‘Is my internet connection working?’ ”

Meanwhile, Lasser was focused on the technical aspects of what it would look like for members watching at home.

“You’re not in the synagogue so where is the text going to go?” Lasser said, referencing the scripture and songs that are traditionally part of the services. “[We] framed the speaker on the left side and left enough room for the text on the side.”

This way participants will be able to read the passages and sing along while still seeing the rabbi and cantor — who leads the congregation in song — inside Temple Isaiah.

“[Lasser] and I have worked very closely together to [figure out] how can we make this as spiritually moving and beautiful of an experience as it can be. And then how can we get that out to the congregation,” Axler said.

Lasser used three cameras to put together the services, moving from shot to shot to ensure that when he went to the edit the footage together they had everything they needed to create realistic Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services.

“For everyone, especially in the Jewish community, high holidays are a time when everyone comes together with family and I think that that is likely what’s going to be the most challenging part of this,” Lasser said.

There will be some parts of the holidays that will more closely resemble what they used to look like.

The ceremonial shofars, a musical instrument made from a ram’s horn, will still be blown on Saturday. Members are invited to drive by to listen in the temple’s parking lot.

Axler said they’re also still hosting the annual food drive for the Howard County Food Bank and the nonprofit food pantry and soup kitchen Elizabeth House. This year, people will pop their trunks open as staff collect donations.

“It’s my hope that, while this is a bit of a different experience for everyone ... that at least here we’re providing a bit of what the experience is like,” Lasser said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to do that [in person] this time next year.”

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