As night falls on the second night of Rosh Hashanah this year, the rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue, together with two shofar blowers, will ascend the 144-foot tower of St Albans Cathedral.
As members of Rabbi Adam Zagoria-Moffet 200-family synagogue assemble — at a safe distance — in the large grassy area below, the blowers will sound the ram’s horn meant to rouse people to repentance at the Jewish New Year.
“Catastrophe is absolutely the mother of creativity in Jewish life,” said Zagoria-Moffet, a American who has led the St. Albans shul for three years.
“People’s hopes and dreams have changed. Their assumptions about their lives have changed. And religion has to respond to that and not just sell a nostalgia for the near past.”
By all indications, the UK Masorti movement is taking Zagoria-Moffett’s advice. In the run-up to two of the most important dates on the Jewish calendar, the movement is in the midst of a broad effort to reimagine what the High Holiday experience can be.
Members are being encouraged to make their own shofar and learn to blow it themselves, to conduct long contemplative nature walks on Yom Kippur and to generally take ownership of their own High Holy Day experience.
“I think it’s going to build greater Jewish literacy in some perverse way, and that is kind of an exciting thing,” said Rabbi Zahavit Shalev, one of the rabbis of the New North London Synagogue, the largest Masorti congregation in the country. “I feel positive about the empowerment.”
People’s hopes and dreams have changed. Their assumptions about their lives have changed. And religion has to respond to that and not just sell a nostalgia for the near past
The effort is driven in large part by the now widespread embrace of livestreamed High Holy Day services. But leaders felt that the streaming of services is integral to maintaining community in an unprecedented time and feel newly empowered by it.
“It basically created a new reality where if there were members who were looking for that to happen, or if there were more liberal parts of the community who were interested in that happening but the leadership was not considering it, it suddenly changed the dynamics,” said Rabbi Chaim Weiner, the director of Masorti Europe and the head of the movement’s European rabbinical court.
Seeking to forge a new consensus, Masorti rabbis put out a statement of their own in June that permitted “passive streaming” in a manner that requires no human intervention.
They explicitly rejected the use of Zoom and other interactive platforms that provide for “active streaming” as violations of Jewish law. The passive setup will be prepared before the holiday and be a one-way stream — meaning congregants will only be able to watch the streamed service to avoid interacting with peers.
Only two UK Masorti synagogues will be streaming services on the High Holy Day this year, although as it happens they are the two largest: Shalev’s New North London Synagogue and the New London Synagogue, the movement’s oldest congregation. Both will be holding abridged in-person services with limited attendance.
Recognising that most congregants will only be able to attend a highly limited in-person service at best, and with most of its sister congregations eschewing livestreaming entirely, New North London has set to work on a range of supplementary programming, including a 50-page booklet to help guide community members through the holiday period.
The book, which is being distributed around the country and translated for other European countries, aims to explain High Holy Day basics to assist with home observance while offering innovative alternatives, like a meditation guide on the theme of repentance.
Synagogues are also ramping up their pre-holiday learning opportunities, including daily classes during the month of Elul, the Hebrew month leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
Recordings of familiar holiday tunes are being uploaded to the internet so people can learn to sing them at home.
And with communal shofar blowing posing unique health risks this year, congregants are being encouraged to make their own using a ram’s horn, a saw and a drill.
“You can get a ram’s horn on eBay,” said Joel Levy, the rabbi of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue in Edgware. “I acquired 10 yesterday just to bump up our numbers.” Zagoria-Moffet has launched DaysOfAwesome.uk, to guide his community through the holiday period.
But while a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the entire enterprise, rabbis are candid both about the imperfection of what they can offer and their hope that some of the creative ferment of this year will remain after the pandemic has passed.
“There might be that things happen this year that we choose to carry on and bring back into our lives,” Levy said. “I hope that we have an experience that is one we can draw on in the future.”