Ortho­dox rab­bis nav­i­gate hol­i­day’s elec­tron­ics ban

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Jonathan M. Pitts

For half a year now, faith lead­ers in Bal­ti­more and be­yond have sum­moned new re­serves of cre­ativ­ity in deal­ing with the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

They’ve mas­tered Zoom and other com­mu­ni­ca­tions plat­forms. They’ve held drive-thru con­fes­sions, dis­played holy ob­jects from trucks, and san­i­tized prayer rugs and pews.

And this week­end, as the holi­est day on the Jewish cal­en­dar ar­rives, the Bal­ti­more area’s most strictly ob­ser­vant Jewish com­mu­nity will see changes in prac­tice to fit the re­quire­ments of their faith.

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, which be­gins at sun­down Sun­day and lasts through Mon­day evening, calls for fast­ing, self-re­flec­tion, and in or­di­nary times, for­mal ser­vices in syn­a­gogues.

Many of Bal­ti­more’s more than 95,000 Jewish res­i­dents will at­tend such ser­vices via com­puter screen this year, thanks to con­tin­u­ing fears around the pan­demic.

But the Ortho­dox won’t have that op­tion. Tra­di­tional Jewish law pro­hibits the use of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy dur­ing hol­i­days, so if Ortho­dox Jews are to at­tend ser­vices, they must do so in per­son.

Rab­bis are adapt­ing in a range of ways to make that pos­si­ble. Some plan to hold out­door ser­vices Sun­day night and Mon­day. Oth­ers will work un­der tents, broad­cast across park­ing lots or hus­tle among ro­tat­ing ser­vices.

What­ever their meth­ods, one rabbi says, the goal will be the same one Jewish lead­ers have sought dur­ing dif­fi­cult times through­out his­tory: to keep tra­di­tions of the faith alive no mat­ter the con­di­tions.

“Op­pres­sion of var­i­ous kinds is noth­ing new to the Jewish peo­ple, and that in­cludes pan­demics,” says Mitchell Wohlberg, long­time se­nior rabbi of Beth Tfiloh Con­gre­ga­tion, a Mod­ern Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue in Pikesville. “Whether it was the Black Plague of the 1300s or the in­fluenza out­break in the early 20th cen­tury, we’ve al­ways looked at pan­demics as times to buckle down and sur­vive.”

About 21% of Bal­ti­more’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion iden­tify as Ortho­dox, one of the high­est fig­ures among Amer­i­can cities, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in May by the As­so­ci­ated Jewish Fed­er­a­tion of Bal­ti­more.

By fol­low­ing proper ac­tion as de­fined in Jewish law — at­tend­ing ser­vices three times a day, for ex­am­ple, and re­frain­ing from work on the Sab­bath — the Ortho­dox be­lieve their lives can be­come ex­pres­sions of God’s will.

The 31% who iden­tify as Mod­ern Ortho­dox, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, carry out most of the same core be­liefs but in a less for­mal man­ner.

Both ad­here to one key prin­ci­ple when it comes to the Sab­bath, and to Jewish hol­i­days such as Yom Kippur — the im­por­tance of keep­ing them holy by es­chew­ing both work and mod­ern con­ve­niences, in­clud­ing com­put­ers.

That’s why, when the coro­n­avirus ar­rived in Bal­ti­more in early March, it struck the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity es­pe­cially hard.

Af­ter Mary­land Gov. Larry Ho­gan is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der lim­it­ing the size of in­door gath­er­ings to 10 peo­ple, other faith tra­di­tions were able to de­velop ways of livestream­ing or oth­er­wise shar­ing videos of im­por­tant ser­vices. Area Catholics and Epis­co­palians could view live Sun­day we­b­casts, for ex­am­ple, and some non-Ortho­dox syn­a­gogues went on­line for Sab­bath ser­vices.

But Ortho­dox Jews lost their means of cel­e­brat­ing the holi­est day of their week.

Some Ortho­dox syn­a­gogues joined the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions era for such ser­vices as lec­tures, coun­sel­ing ses­sions and com­mu­nity meet­ings. But Sab­bath ser­vices — a day that, for Jews, par­al­lels God’s de­ci­sion to rest and ad­mire his cre­ation — stayed dark for months.

Yis­rael Motzen, se­nior rabbi of Ner Tamid-Green­spring Val­ley Syn­a­gogue in Pikesville, says that was a painful de­vel­op­ment for many in his con­gre­ga­tion.

“Peo­ple who are feel­ing lonely or stressed out, maybe from tak­ing care of the kids, tend to turn to their spir­i­tual home as a place of sup­port,” Motzen says. “When their spir­i­tual home is not open, it’s dev­as­tat­ing.”

Motzen says vol­un­teers from Ner Tamid have spent months mak­ing reg­u­lar phone calls to mem­bers who live alone or de­liv­er­ing Sab­bath meals to the el­derly.

As coro­n­avirus num­bers im­proved, and Ho­gan and gov­ern­ment health of­fi­cials eased re­stric­tions on the size of in­door gath­er­ings, some Ortho­dox rab­bis be­gan hold­ing mod­i­fied ser­vices on syn­a­gogue grounds, in­clud­ing on the Sab­bath.

Beth Tfiloh be­gan of­fer­ing drive-in ser­vices on week­days — and se­verely re­stricted, so­cially dis­tanced Shab­bat ser­vices in its 1,600-seat sanc­tu­ary — in early June. Ner Tamid, where the sanc­tu­ary can hold more than 400 in nor­mal times, re­sumed Sab­bath ser­vices in its so­cial hall later in the month. The space holds 85 so­cially dis­tanced peo­ple.

Even now, rab­bis are care­ful to cau­tion mem­bers not to come if they have the slight­est health con­cern, as Jewish law places a higher value on per­sonal safety than on ob­ser­vance.

For Yom Kippur, rab­bis are de­vel­op­ing plans that suit the needs of their in­di­vid­ual syn­a­gogues, Wohlberg says, both the­o­log­i­cally and lo­gis­ti­cally.

Wohlberg’s read­ing of Jewish law tells him that cer­tain High Hol­i­day ob­ser­vances may be shared elec­tron­i­cally, as long as they’re not on Yom Kippur it­self — he’ll pre­re­cord and pre­dis­tribute a ser­mon, for ex­am­ple. Ser­vices will be held in­doors for about 150 peo­ple.

At Ner Tamid, ser­vices will be held not in the sanc­tu­ary, which was ruled too un­wieldy a space, but in the smaller so­cial hall and in a rented tent on the grounds.


Rabbi Yis­rael Motzen poses Sept. 22 beneath the tent of Yer Tamid syn­a­gogue.

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