Orthodox rabbis navigate holiday’s electronics ban
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.