Jewish holidays are often divided into “home-based” holidays and “synagogue-based” holidays. Passover is a classic home-based holiday, when families and individuals host seders at home. On the other end of the spectrum are the High Holidays, which stand out as days observed almost entirely in synagogue, climaxing with five different services spanning the long day of Yom Kippur. The High Holidays are the epitome of a communal prayer experience. Not only are more people in synagogue than on any other day of the year, even the Hebrew liturgy is in the plural: the Al Chet prayer asks for forgiveness for a full litany of “our sins.”
In 2020, for most, High Holiday services were not experienced at synagogue but at home. The virtual model creates both challenges and opportunities for how to observe and celebrate. Holidays that previously required of us simply to show up at a certain time and place now ask for a bit more.
If you’re attending High Holiday services over Zoom, here are seven suggestions to help you get the most out of this virtual holiday experience.
1. Wear Holiday Clothing
It may be tempting to stay in pajamas, but it’s a good idea to dress in a way that will help you feel that the day is special. While the spirit of the holiday does not lay in our clothing, outer garments can have an impact on our inner experience. Some people have a tradition to wear a new shirt on Rosh Hashanah, and a kittel on Yom Kippur. Even if your computer’s camera is turned off and no one else will see what you’re wearing, you will feel the difference.
2. Create a Beautiful Space Around Your Screen
Set up your space in a different way than your typical work-at-home station. If you normally sit in your office for work-related or Zoom learning sessions, sit in your living room. If you live in a studio apartment, put your screen somewhere else in the space, or flip it in the other direction. Giving yourself a different background can make for a different experience. Try to create a miniature sanctuary in your own home: Clean the space, hang a tapestry, put clutter in a drawer.
3. Stream Video on a Large Screen
If possible, stream services on a larger screen. Investigate what kind of cord is needed to connect your computer to your television, so that you won’t have to be so close to your computer screen. This will allow more space for your prayer experience. If you don’t have a television screen, close all other browsers on the device you’ll be using. Either way, create a small “worship space” at a distance from the screen.
4. Buy or Print a Mahzor
Try to buy or print the mahzor, or holiday prayer book, that will be used in the service. A printed book or pamphlet will add texture to your experience. Plus, If you have a hard copy, you won’t need to minimize or split screens while you watch a prayer service. Alternatively, set up two screens: one for the text of the machzor, and one for the service itself. (Check out My Jewish Learning’s guide to buying a mahzor here.)
5. Choose a Single Service
While it may be tempting to synagogue-hop, or wonder if there’s something better on another “channel,” it is better to choose one service ahead of time that you can commit to on the holiday. Or, if you do feel the need to switch, switch early, not often. Being fully present in one virtual space can add to a sense of being part of a community, even if that community is virtual or temporary. Staying with one service gives the day form and rhythm, offering a more integrated experience.
Participating can take many forms, but you’ll feel the difference between being an active participant and a passive spectator. Chant along, hum along, sway along, say the words, read the translation. Bow, stand and sit if you are able. Even if you can’t hear, see, or touch the other participants, you become part of a virtual congregation when you bring your full self to the service.
7. Make It Holy, However You Can
All of these suggestions are based on the premise that we, as participants in the service, can take active steps to co-create both sacred space and sacred time. By doing this, we distinguish the holidays from other days, just as Shabbat is distinguished as holy (kodesh), from the other days of the week which are profane (chol). This Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, more than ever before, you have the opportunity to create an atmosphere in your home – a makeshift Temple – that can highlight the holiness of the days. Making your space and this unique moment in time holy, however you see fit, will add a new dimension to your holiday observance.
How are you spending the High Holidays this year? Share your plans, suggestions, and questions in My Jewish Learning’s vibrant Facebook discussion group, Let’s Talk Jewish Holidays.