Rabbi Carl M. Perkins
Cantor Jamie Gloth
Melissa Rudman, Executive Director 
Arlene Bryer, President

Preparing Your Home for the High Holidays

September 11, 2020 | 22 Elul 5780
Dear Friends,

How is this year different from all other years?

Well, there are plenty of answers to that question. The one I’m going to focus on today is simple: As the new year (5781) begins, we won’t, as we usually do, be gathering physically in our synagogue building for High Holiday services -- in fact, in most cases, we won’t be leaving our homes. Instead, as by now I hope we all know, we will gather virtually: we’ll be turning on our computers and connecting with our service and with one another through the miracles of livestreaming and zoom. (Yes, these are different from one another. You can explore the distinction here.) 

By now, we may be used to Zoom meetings, but we may not yet be familiar with Zoom or livestreamed services. I’d like to set out a few words of advice for all of us, so that we can make the most of the experience. 

But first, by way of an introduction:

Ideally, a Jewish worship service should not be a performance. It should be an opportunity to join in an engaging, participatory experience.

And yet, here we are: attending services on our screens!
How can this not feel like a performance?

Well, here are a few ideas to try to create an environment that can foster a more spiritual experience (These ideas are dealt with in three helpful essays by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein; Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter and Marc Fein; and Cantor Max Axelrod).

  1. Choose where you’ll want to be during services. Ideally, you won’t be in a home office. Try to find a spot in your house that is contemplative and not distracting. It should be a comfortable spot where you can sit and, on occasion, stand. Is there a mezuzah on the doorpost of the room? If not, maybe you can arrange that. Decide what chair you want to use. It should be firm and supportive. (Remember: services are longer than most Zoom meetings.) How will you be viewing the service: A computer screen? A tablet? A TV monitor? Is the lighting adequate? If not, try to adjust it. Try to set things up NOW, rather than leaving this preparation for the last minute.  
  2. What direction will you be facing? When we recite the Amidah or Standing Prayer, it’s traditional to face east, toward Jerusalem. When praying from home, it’s nice to have a decorative work on the wall to help us focus on our prayers. Typically, this is a “Shiviti” (the word is taken from Psalm 16:8: “I set [shiviti] Adonai before me every day”) or a “Mizrach” (“East”) placed on an eastern wall -- though it could be any evocative, contemplative item. Incidentally, if you do not have a “Shiviti” or a “Mizrach,” we invite you to participate in the free virtual papercutting workshop to be conducted in the studio of artist Jeanette Kuvin Oren which will take place on Tuesday, September 22nd. Details are available here.) 
  3. Decorate the spot for the High Holidays. What would you like to see around you during the service? Consider putting family pictures or Jewish books around you. Be sure to cover up electronics or other items that might distract you from your prayers. 
  4. Get dressed up. Yes, I know: by now most of us have that “Zoom shirt” that we keep handy to put on during Zoom meetings. (Check out the memes on line.) But Rosh Hashanah isn’t a work day. Neither is Yom Kippur. They’re holidays. They’re holy days. Dress festively. As in other years, our clothing on the holidays should be comfortable, but it should be festive -- even if we’re the only ones who will be seeing it. If you have a kittel (a white robe) feel free to wear it on Yom Kippur.
  5. Think about synchronizing your davening with others. Reach out to friends or family members. Plan to be in services at the same time. Think about taking a break at the same time. 
  6. Try to limit visual and auditory distractions. Turn off your email and text message ping sounds. Try to set the computer screen further away than you do during a meeting, so as to avoid interacting with it as much as possible. Try to avoid using the keyboard and the mouse. Try, in other words, to be fully present during services.  
  7. Get to services early. There’s no need to rush out the door. Just settle yourself down in front of the screen, with mahzor in hand. Give yourself time to relax and meditate a bit before the davening begins. Breathe deeply and exhale. Appreciate how lucky we are to have such an amazing way of praying together, of being together -- even though we will physically be located in hundreds of separate places. 
  8. While in services, try to commune. Try to listen to the Cantor’s davening. Try to join him as much as possible, out loud.  This may feel awkward, but it will contribute immeasurably to your experience. Read along in the mahzor, but don’t hesitate to read the reflections and explanations in the margins. Don’t hesitate to close your eyes and to meditate on the themes of the holiday. All of that is part of the experience. 
  9. Take breaks. Stand up occasionally. Try to combat “screen fatigue.”
  10. Finally, try to invite the spirit of the holiday to pervade the entire day. On Rosh Hashanah, eat festive meals -- with sweets! Consider sharing your meals -- via Zoom -- with friends or loved ones. On Yom Kippur, when you are not in services, reflect on ways in which you can improve your behavior in the coming year -- and think about those to whom you should be apologizing. In short, try to make use of these holy days the way they were intended to be experienced: as precious opportunities to celebrate the new year and to seek atonement.

Shanah Tovah u’Metukah! Let me wish you and your family a healthy, fulfilling and sweet new year!


Rabbi Carl M. Perkins