Question: I’m thinking ahead to Rosh Hashanah, and I’m already dreading it. I know, Passover was much better than I expected, because I was able see all of my relatives living far away by video chat and I had not expected to feel connected at all. I loved my family’s creativity in substituting traditional or beloved foods we could not access. I couldn’t believe how well my kids did — they had never made seders before!
But I am really worried about Rosh Hashanah. I live alone, and Rosh Hashanah is a holiday I usually celebrate with my synagogue community. It’s the one time a year I make it to shul on time and schmooze with people — it feels like a big reunion! I’m really down about this. I don’t really know what to do! Any suggestions?
Answer: Rosh Hashanah is definitely different from Passover! For most, Passover is about home and family, while Rosh Hashanah tends to be more synagogue-community oriented. Holidays help us mark time and pause to connect with the larger world. Holidays remind us of times past. When you celebrate this Rosh Hashanah, you will be celebrating the memory of every Rosh Hashanah you’ve had. You have already done some holiday reflection, and realized how much community means in your celebration.
In that spirit, you might take the action that Claire Helfman did when she moved several years ago to Marblehead, MA. When she first moved to Marblehead, she knew no one. She went to the rabbi of her shul, Temple Emanu-El, and asked for a list of newcomers and all single people in the synagogue. She told him, “I’m going to organize a Shabbat dinner in my condo.” Fifteen people came the first week, and her meals kept growing. Now, years later, the community meals which began in Claire’s condo are a regular fixture of Shabbat and holidays. With the advent of Covid-19, Claire’s meals have gone virtual! Everyone contributes an amount for a packaged meal from Claire, and the group eats together on video-chat. For Rosh Hashanah, Claire is hosting a seudah, ritual meal. She is creating guiding questions to focus the discussion and avoid on-screen chaos. Each participant will be given two minutes to share their reflections on what they value or learned most from their pandemic experience. Then, they will have a quiz on traditional High Holiday practices. A group of volunteers are researching to help Claire create the quiz, using online resources. For example, a question might be, “What does throwing breadcrumbs in a pond have to do with forgiveness?” This gives everybody a chance to learn a little and helps more people feel they are facilitating the group experience.
In warm climates, this year one might also be able to host physical meals outdoors with neighbors or other congregants, You don’t need to limit yourself to a synagogue community — this can be a great chance to get to know people who live nearby or like-minded folk interested in building community. There are a few options for hosting socially distant meals. Everyone can bring their own chair or blanket to eat on, and make sure the space is large enough for people to spread far apart! Everyone might bring their own meal, or masked-and-gloved volunteers might cook and individually package food for the group. Purchasing prepackaged food might also be an option. It is important to ensure that every participant will have the ability to participate ritually — that might mean plastic-wrapped challah rolls, or distributing airplane size bottles of grape juice. You could also build community through delivering meals to people unable to leave their homes, spreading holiday warmth all around. Another option is to pair with organizations who usually host meals for people who cannot afford their own — see if they might subsidize some of your guests or connect their regulars with you. There are many ways to do this. One thing is constant: helping others makes each of us individually feel better.
On every Rosh Hashanah, we reflect on our places in the world and how we might change ourselves and our role in the coming year. On this Rosh Hashanah, every member of am Yisrael must pause to reflect on what is happening to our society. This year, I am thinking about how society and how I care for our vulnerable members and how I might do so differently or better next year. The ongoing movement for Black lives and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on poor communities has highlighted how important it is for me to strengthen my own community — but also work to understand and contribute what I can to other communities. The first few months of the pandemic, many of us felt shell-shocked and trapped. Rosh Hashanah can be a turning point: Now, it is time to make change.
Even homebound, we are not powerless. I have found it beneficial to reflect on what skills I have that may be of use to others, and to seek virtual volunteer opportunities. For example, are there teachers in underserved communities we might assist, either by tutoring students or actually assisting the teacher? Could we make calls for a political campaign we believe in? Educate ourselves and our community through books and virtual events? Start a community fridge where anyone can donate or take food as needed? The good news is, most opportunities no longer need to be within ten miles of our house! If you are a member of a synagogue or any other Jewish organization, how can that solve some of the inequities that are around you? Who do you feel responsible for, and how can you get that group through the pandemic?
This is the season of cheshbon hanefesh, accounting for the soul. This practice involves noting for yourself where you feel you have profited, i.e. done better than the year before, and where you have incurred a loss. These gains and losses can be spiritual, interpersonal, or societal. To fully account, ask why you have incurred losses, and how you might change your practices to turn losses into gains. We have all experienced a terrible event this year; I hope this holiday helps us heal.
I would love to hear your ideas on how you have built community or how you will be spending the holiday; write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have any questions for Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, The American Israelite’s advice columnist, please send them to email@example.com.