Temple Israel's Rosh Hashanah service
Temple Israel's Rosh Hashanah service.

In this unusual year for worship, our writers had different takeaways from the New Year.

Temple Israel’s Rosh Hashanah Services — ‘Coming Home’

By Mark Jacobs

Even for a temple like Temple Israel — which has been a forerunner at consistently producing high quality virtual services since March — this year’s Rosh Hashanah services were elevated to a whole new and spectacular level.

Beginning with the first moment of the Erev Rosh Hashanah service, as the screen scrolled the words, “This is not a typical Rosh Hashanah service. But then again, nothing is typical this year,” the tone was set for an extraordinary service that took the congregation on a historic and spiritual journey themed “Coming Home.”

Temple Israel’s Rosh Hashanah Services
Courtesy of Mark Jacobs

The service began with a video of the late and beloved Rabbi Robert Syme, telling his congregation that “in such homes, the hearts of the children and parents turn to each other in love and respect and understanding and spiritual unity.”

As a video montage panned the former site in Palmer Park and the old Jewish neighborhoods of Detroit, Rabbi Jen Lader beautifully connected the past to the present and recited, “As we trace our story as a congregation on this holy day, we are still the strong, creative and dynamic temple that we have always been. Join us on this journey.”

For the next hour, the service was a seamless array of that journey, starting with the auditorium of the Detroit Institute of Art, where founding Rabbi Leon Fram began services in 1941, to the old Temple in Palmer Park, to reciting Kaddish at the Temple Israel section of the Beth El cemetery where Rabbi Fram is buried, and then, finally, to the current home of the Temple in West Bloomfield.

The old Temple in Palmer Park is now a church, and still retains much of the splendor of the old Temple home, including the massive Star of David at the center of the majestic ceiling. At the “bimah,” the cantors sang, the rabbis prayed and the shofar sounded — all on the exact spot where Rabbi Syme, Rabbi Fram, Rabbi Harold Loss and Cantor Harold Orbach once stood and inspired past generations. Although the sanctuary was empty, the words and music were as gripping as ever, and the linkage to the past was obvious and powerful. Rabbi Marla Hornsten captured the mood best by describing the Palmer Park sanctuary as a “sacred space.”

Temple Israel’s Rosh Hashanah Services
Courtesy of Mark Jacobs

Rabbi Lader delivered a masterful sermon that addressed the difficulty of life during COVID-19. “We turn to our tradition in an attempt to comprehend,” she said, “and as we look around, it is time to listen. What is God saying?”

The largest Jewish congregation in the world (or, as Rabbi Yedwab quoted, the “biggest little” temple in the world) had no doubt succeeded in accomplishing precisely what it had intended: to produce a meaningful service that would touch and inspire with words, music, offsite videos and cherished memories that honored the legacies of those that came before us.

Just as was stated at the outset of the service, although everything is atypical this year, Temple Israel could assure its people that they could still come home to the “same incredible community.”

Rosh Hashanah Al Fresco

By Barbara Lewis

After six months of COVIDd-related shutdowns, I am oysgezoomt, a neo-Yiddishism coined by someone smarter than me to mean fed up with Zoom. For me, Zoom or Facebook Live services just don’t cut it. And we would not be able to host or attend large holiday meals. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to the High Holidays this year.

Luckily, our friends Elaine Webber and Barry Chesterman decided to hold a minyan in their Huntington Woods backyard on the first day of Rosh Hashanah for 15 family and friends.

They borrowed a Torah from Congregation Beth Shalom, where they are members, and set out pairs of chairs a healthy distance from other pairs. The “bimah” was a beach blanket with a cloth-covered folding table. The “ark” was a garden chair where the Torah sat covered with a tallit.

The weather couldn’t have been better, with temps in the mid-60s, a bright blue sky and no wind. We dressed up — earrings and makeup for me, even — so it almost felt like we were “going to shul.”

Everyone participated in the service, which included everything required for Rosh Hashanah worship even though we skipped many familiar piyyutim in the interest of time. The service lasted about two hours.

I was there from the beginning, which I never am at an actual synagogue service, and I enjoyed reading the notes in the front section of the Conservative Lev Shalem machzor, which in the past I never arrived in time to read. I was particularly struck by this thought from the late Abraham Joshua Heschel, which seems truer now than ever:

“Is it really our desire to build a monolithic society: one party, one view, one leader, and no opposition? Is religious uniformity desirable or even possible? … Does not the task for preparing the Kingdom of God require a diversity of talents, a variety of rituals, soul-searching as well as opposition? Perhaps it is the will of God that in this eon there should be diversity in our forms of devotion and commitment to God.”

A Holiday Diary

By David Sachs

Despite all the COVID restrictions, my wife, Freda, and I managed to have an inspirational Rosh Hashanah and connect with friends and family.

We spent the first morning of the holiday at the open-air Orthodox service of the Birmingham Bloomfield Shul. It was led by Rabbi Tzvi Muller with about 30 widely spaced, masked worshipers under a very large, open-sided tent. During his talk, Rabbi Muller stressed that the term “Jewish” derives from the Hebrew word for gratitude and suggested that congregants consider blessings of the past year. It was great to see friends we hadn’t seen since the pre-pandemic Purim celebration.

We also visited a heimish non-denominational Jewish Zoom service with my cousins in Los Angeles at Congregation Beth Ohr of Studio City with Rabbi Haim Beliak. With the time zone difference, we could share in their experience, too.

Then, Freda and I enjoyed apples and honey and a Rosh Hashanah picnic with several of her cousins in a Birmingham park. It was the first we have seen of each other since the pandemic began.

On the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, we participated in a Conservative service on Zoom with Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield. There, Rabbi Steven Rubenstein noted that humility is a key element of repentance.

On the Zoom service, we saw more relatives and friends, including a chorus of three of my cousins who led the beautiful davening.

Later, we visited friends in Birmingham we hadn’t seen in six months and performed Tashlich at a small river.

All in all, a very meaningful Rosh Hashanah and a time to reconnect with family and friends.

Missing Services at Shul

By Louis Finkelman

This year I did not go to shul on Rosh HaShanah for the first time since I was old enough to be taken to synagogue.  It felt odd, though I am beginning to get used to saying my prayers all alone.

What did I miss about services at shul?  I missed looking around, and seeing all those admirable people, all together to pray for themselves, their families, the Jewish nation, and our shared world.

I missed the feeling of singing, even a wordless tune, along with people throughout the shul, and feeling lifted by them as if by an ocean wave.

What did I treasure about praying all alone? Being able to take time with the words.

Thoughts from B’nai Moshe:

By Keri Guten Cohen
The coronavirus pandemic did not dampen spirits for congregants from Congregation B’nai Moshe during the High Holidays. After a 40-minute technical delay on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, everything went smoothly. A skeleton crew, all of whom had COVID-19 tests, took safe-distancing positions in the sanctuary — even choir members Steve Rabinowitz, Elyse Fine, Stacey Whalen and Marc Sussman, who performed well despite their reduced numbers.
Streamlined services kept our attention at home, where I watched with my husband, daughter and sister-in-law. At times, we improvised by muting the online service and taking turns reading from the machzor. We joined Yiskor to hear the amazing story of congregant and Holocaust survivor Edith Maniker. And before Ne’ilah, we joined Rabbi Shalom Kantor for a meaningful guided Yom Kippur meditation to discover our authentic selves as the shofar beckoned us to the closing gates.
We wished for that human contact the High Holiday brings — the schmoozing and hugs, the fashions and the new babies — but we kind of liked the change of pace and the safety it provided. And, in between, we did some channel surfing and found the edgy, music-laden Because Jewish service at the Brooklyn Bowl. Who knew?

A Few Of Our Favorite Things

By Shelli Liebman Dorfman

A pre-Rosh Hashanah, extended, multi-city, family Zoom offered a first-time glimpse for many of us into one another’s pre-holiday homes, including those scurrying around their kitchens while staying within the computer’s eyeshot.

At one point, the group welcomed the unexpected, long-distance treat of the sound of a shofar, blown by someone we later discovered was our next door neighbor.

Even though our synagogue, Ohel Moed of Shomrey Emunah held tented services with reserved, distanced seating and strict safety guidelines, we made the tough decision to not attend this year.

The Orthodox service was not streamed or Zoomed but the rabbi provided a listing of at-home prayers. During Rosh Hashanah lunch on our children’s deck, we received feedback from our grandchildren who were at the services, telling about the strangeness of being there without extended family.

Their younger siblings, in the age-group discouraged from attending, described the small service they instead led at home with their mom.

In discussing, not the past year’s difficulties, but the best points, they agree their favorite times were playing on socially distanced baseball teams, celebrating at drive-by birthday parties and the unforeseen time spent together with family.

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