Shaking a plant in island nation
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Outdoor gatherings are allowed, with social distancing, but dancing is not.

In the tumultuous year that is 5781, celebrating the High Holidays has been anything but a normal experience for the Jewish community.

In response, the Orthodox Union has released a document spelling out guidelines and recommendations for how Jews can spend their Sukkot and Simchat Torah in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, including strict social distancing for Sukkot and no dancing for Simchat Torah.

The Orthodox Union (OU) has served as an umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry since 1898, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network.

Rabbi Adir Posy, Director of Synagogue and Community Services for OU, helped craft the document and believes celebrations can be just as fulfilling as other years, just in different ways.

“What we’re trying to guide people with is striking a balance with keeping as much normalcy as possible and being able to connect to the traditions we’ve done every year, with the allowance for making sure we are extremely vigilant about safety protocols,” Rabbi Posy told the JN.

“We must plan and prepare for Sukkot and Simchat Torah, being especially mindful of the recent rise in positive tests in many communities,” the document reads. “This uptick is a source of genuine concern, and we must be committed to make every effort to reverse it by proceeding with appropriate caution.”

OU worked with medical experts and public health officials to see if environments for celebration could be created in a safe way.

“In most cases, we found out the answer was yes,” Rabbi Posy said. “There are ways to create worship indoors or outdoors in ways that are safe.”

According to the document, celebration of Sukkot may go on, and shuls may continue to conduct services with masking and social distancing, going by the parameters provided by local health departments.

The traditional communal prayers over the lulav and etrog, which involve picking up and shaking the plants, can continue as well – without gloves, but with hand sanitizing.

“The communal Succah should be used with similar caution, and the use of shared communal arba minim [four Sukkot species] – which should be held without wearing gloves – should be preceded and followed by hand sanitizing,” the document reads. “To conduct the hoshanot [prayers over the lulav and etrog] with proper social distance, rather than having everyone present join the hakafa [circling the bimah] at once, it may be most practical to divide into smaller groups that take turns making the circuit around the bimah.”

The document also states that shuls which have secure outdoor spaces available, such as a parking lot, may consider assembling outdoors with masking and social distance.

The OU also advises Jews not to dance during Simchat Torah (Oct. 10-11).

“This special day is typically celebrated by spirited dancing with the Torah, which is something that seems impossible to replicate this year while maintaining proper safeguards,” the document reads. “Even without holding hands, and even outdoors, when dancing in circles we are continuously walking into the clouds of droplets generated by the vigorous singing and dancing of others. Sadly, there seems to be no way in which this can be safely accomplished… These are certainly meaningful disappointments.”

While there’s hope that next year’s High Holidays will see a return to normalcy, Rabbi Posy said there’s aspects of these guidelines that can be used for the future, such as the Jewish people becoming closer with their connection to the Torah, even without the singing and dancing.

“What we’re seeing is an explosion of innovation,”  Rabbi Posy said. “One of the recommendations we made as we celebrate the Torah is to celebrate the ways in which the Torah or connecting to studying Torah has enhanced people’s lives. So I can imagine that type of sharing is a very meaningful thing that can exist in really any context, and is one of the examples of innovative ideas I think will be able to stand the test of time.”

“We all join in prayer that our communities and our country be spared any further suffering, and that we merit to experience the upcoming festival as zman simchateinu, a true season of joy,” the document concluded.