Part website, part digital time capsule, the High Holiday multimedia scrapbook contains videos of shofar blasts and congregants sending greetings from their living rooms and backyards.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, the leadership of my congregation, B’nai Israel, grappled with the reality that High Holiday services as we knew them were not going to happen for the year 5781.
We are a small, yet committed shul. Though we have arranged for ways to conduct Shabbat and holiday services over Zoom without breaking halachah, some congregants do not wish to use any electronics on Shabbat or yom tov.
So how do we stay connected during the time of the year when we look forward the most to physically coming together as a congregation?
Like Jews have done through great shifts in our history, we innovate. One innovation we launched is the creation of the High Holiday multimedia scrapbook.
Part website, part digital time capsule and definitely not a service, the scrapbook contains videos of shofar blasts and congregants sending greetings from their living rooms and backyards. Congregants filmed while preparing cherished family dishes like brisket or banana bread and links to those recipes. There are recordings of us singing prayers from the Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur liturgy to melodies that have become intrinsic to the B’nai Israel High Holiday services.
And our favorite is the very participatory singing of the Piyyut Vayetanu that occurs during the Musaf services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
“Of all the prayers, it is something our congregation looks forward to singing together every year,” said B’nai Israel Executive Director Linda Jacobson, who came up with the scrapbook idea. “It is very interactive and lively. So when I found a compilation video of this prayer from another congregation created with individuals singing it from their homes, I thought, ‘Why can’t we do the same?’”
Selected congregants were asked to help with recording this prayer, and then others expressed interest in adding their own video submissions. Jacobson recruited the creativity and enthusiasm of my fellow congregant and friend Susan Knoppow to gather the submissions in a Dropbox. Then she worked with local video producer Adam Luger of Blue Racer Productions to compile the videos and design the webpage. In all, about 50 families submitted about 80 entries to the project.
“This has, in a way, become a digital New Year’s card, a greeting from all of us to all of us,” Knoppow said. “The greetings have been lovely. This has given our congregation a chance to record themselves wishing for a sweet new year to people who they miss seeing each week on Shabbat.”
Recording oneself on one device while listening to music on another, and then uploading it securely, takes some tech-savvy knowhow. That’s when Knoppow turned to me as well as to congregant and Frankel Jewish Academy history teacher Joe Bernstein to field tech questions. I must admit, Joe was way more qualified than I, what with a few months of teaching his students over Zoom and Google classroom under his belt.
“This scrapbook has empowered our members to become more involved with the High Holidays when we physically cannot be together,” said Rabbi Mitch Parker. “What started out as Linda’s idea of getting people to record one prayer together has blossomed thanks to the enthusiasm and efforts of our congregants. In future times, we can look back upon this project to see how we tried to stay connected during the pandemic.”
A HEARTFELT RESPONSE
B’nai Israel Co-President Joanna Abramson said the scrapbook is “the congregation’s response to the natural loss we all feel about not being able to get together in person with our B’nai Israel family.”
“We are sharing our thoughts, recipes and photos into a scrapbook that we will be able to enjoy all season long,” Abramson said. “Afterward, we can look back onto this collective memento of this unprecedented time in history.”
My family submitted a video of my son Toby and me singing a prayer set to a harmonious niggun. We even got dressed up for it. As we sat in the dining room and sang into my laptop, I thought about the awkwardness of this approach to the Days of Awe. Praying before a computer screen hardly conjures up the same feelings of being in shul, taking in the melodies of Hineni or Kol Nidre as I have done for my entire life.
Toby and I stumbled over a few of the syllables of prophetic Hebrew and giggled toward the end at the harmonies that went sour. But our video did preserve this moment we found ourselves in — approaching a historic Jewish and school year in a time of pandemic. A year that will be Toby’s last before hopefully leaving for college by next Rosh Hashanah.
This project has been described as a lot of things. A scrapbook. A time capsule. For me, the word that comes to mind that best describes a project for the Jewish New Year is — sweet.