Rosh Hashanah: Jewish people prepare to balance old traditions, modern pandemic

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The Jewish year 5,781 will begin like none other before when the sun sets this Friday night, ushering in Rosh Hashana.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, presents particular challenges for religious Jews, who typically don’t use electronics on the Jewish Sabbath and major holidays.

Some congregations — particularly Orthodox ones — have decided to gather in small groups, taking typical COVID-era precautions. Others, like Chisuk Emuna Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Harrisburg, are conducting what its rabbi, Ron Muroff, calls a “balancing act,” asking congregants to stay home and trying to embrace technology without violating religious customs.

Chisuk Emuna’s services will be online, but the technology will be configured so clergy and congregants can set up their systems before the holiday begins, negating the need to actually push any buttons on the holiday.

Muroff said that can help everyone stay not only religiously compliant, but also focused.

“Sometimes if you sit a little too close to the computer and the rabbi’s sermon gets a little, you know, a little dry, you might be tempted to check a sports score,” he joked.

Muroff said congregants of all faiths can actually experience a sense of grief at not being able to attend services in person, and that counterintuitively, people who don’t attend services often might be more prone to that during a holiday like Rosh Hashana, which might be the first time they would have been back in a synagogue since the pandemic began.

“To be getting together with family, with friends, with fellow congregants… to be eating familiar foods around family celebrations… to have all of that suspended is a real loss and something we should really pay attention to,” he said.

On the other hand, Muroff said this year’s holiday — even if observed remotely — can carry extra weight.

“One of the key [Rosh Hashanah] prayers talks about who shall live and who shall die,” he said. “And words like that obviously impact us any year, but especially this year.”

Synagogues like his are mixing in low-tech approaches wherever possible, such as by lending prayer books for congregants to use while following remote services in their homes, and by preparing care packages — complete with apples and honey, traditional Rosh Hashanah foods — for children.

The Jewish “High Holy Day” period concludes with Yom Kippur, a solemn fast day, 10 days after the two-day Rosh Hashanah holiday begins.

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