Finding community in the Jewish High Holy Days

Three cultural and academic leaders at Penn consider how a return to experiencing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in person offered physical and spiritual healing.

A cut apple and pomegranate surround a honey jar with a wooden honey stick on top. An uncut apple and pomegranate are in the background.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur represent a time for Jewish people to look ahead and reflect back, to celebrate a new year and to make amends for the transgressions of the past year. Yet the emergence of COVID-19 meant these rituals couldn’t take place in the same way, with congregations live-streaming services and families congregating virtually. 

Though the pandemic isn’t over, this year marked a return to in-person services and gatherings for many. Penn Today spoke with three of the University’s cultural and academic leaders to find out how the High Holidays can offer a sense of community—both physically and spiritually—after the pandemic.

Steven Philip Weitzman, Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and the Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies

In Jewish tradition, sorrow is always tinged with hope, and hope is always tinged with sorrow. That has proven true of the COVID pandemic as well. 

This year, for the first time since 2019, I was able to gather in a synagogue with other Jews to celebrate the Jewish new year—a very happy and hopeful moment. We had made it into the book of life that God inscribes every year with the names of the living.

And yet the rejoicing did not erase the memory of the past two years—the loss of loved ones and the isolation—nor could I fail to notice that not everyone was able to return. For many, it remains unsafe to attend public events in a house of worship, and the joy of being together with others during the High Holidays was incomplete because of their absence.

How, historically, have Jews weathered similar experiences? In the Bible, when a plague befell a community, it was seen as a punishment from God for sin and as a warning to change the course of one’s life. I suspect that, especially in the opening months of the pandemic, a good number of Jews saw the pandemic as a similar message to reform. As was true of Egypt in biblical times, there is much suffering and injustice in our land, and for some the pandemic was a wake-up call, a warning that things must change.

Jews do not always try to make sense of disaster; more important is surviving it. For this reason, I am not sure Judaism has any secret to share about how to weather such an experience other than to cherish life as a gift, to comfort others in distress, to remain committed to one’s community, and to try to find hope in the darkness.

Rabbi Gabe Greenberg, executive director at Penn Hillel

The High Holidays of fall 2022, or the Hebrew new year 5783, was a return to the way things were, while also, in some ways, marking a rupture from the past.

For centuries, the High Holiday season has helped create a sense of community and coming together. This is certainly true at Penn, where the three services that Hillel offers serve as a gathering space for students and community members, some of whom are regular attendees and others who attend services once or twice a year. This year in particular, there was a focus on being both spiritually and physically together. In fact, we stopped including the previously adopted livestream option, out of a sense that what most students crave right now is being together—the “IRL” (in real life) experience.

Simultaneously, there are shifts that may be here to stay. For decades, younger Jews have identified less strongly with the “religious” element of Judaism in favor of the cultural and/or ethnic. One way this trend plays out is through non-attendance at synagogue, including on the High Holidays. This year was no exception, as rates of attendance for non-Orthodox students was quite low, as reported by Hillels across the country. Another manifestation of this trend is the push for many U.S. synagogues to drop the fees that were once charged for tickets to High Holiday services to remove all barriers to synagogue attendance.

For Penn Hillel, this means a recommitment to our core principle of being radically welcoming of all Jews and Jewish traditions.

Nili Gold, professor of modern Hebrew language and literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations in the School of Arts & Sciences

I would call this year “the big transition.” If everything continues in the same direction, we will be able to look back on this year as the big turning point. A turning point still contains some of the past but also looks forward to the future. This is the year that many of us dared to celebrate with our loved ones in a larger group or go into a synagogue. Rosh Hashanah is the head of the year, the beginning of the year, but this is like the beginning after three years. It’s a greater celebration and a promise of the future.

There is a prayer recited during the High Holidays called Unetaneh Tokef. It says who will live and who will die, who by sword and who by fire and who by plague and who by hunger. The prayer enumerates all the possible deaths, but at the end says that faith and good deeds can avert the decree through acts of repentance, prayer, and charity. This year, so much more is underlying this prayer, more of an awareness, of gratitude.

For my family, 14 of us from 3 months to age 74, this was the first time we got together to celebrate since March 2020. We met on the roof and had a wonderful gathering. One of the people there made a blessing, the Shehecheyanu, which is usually made to thank God at the first instance you do something in the Jewish calendar year, like eating a fruit. The blessing was emotional, acknowledging gratitude for being alive and surviving the last three years.

What we learned over the pandemic is that there are many ways a connection can be made: on a roof of a synagogue where those uncomfortable going into a closed space can pray in the open air, over Zoom in your living room. Even though many people did come back this year, there is a feeling still, an awareness and acknowledgement that not everybody could.