Judaism under quarantine: The holiest days on the Jewish calendar will look different this year

COVID-19 is changing the way the Jewish community will worship.

The most sacred time of the Jewish year begins Sept. 18 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and ends Sept. 28 with the conclusion of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

Like Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday services, the Jewish High Holy Days are a time when even the most casually observant come together at synagogues around the country and across the globe. The most religious Jews typically spend the two days of Rosh Hashana at temple in worship, as well as the eve and day of Yom Kippur.

Amid the pandemic, though, things will be different.

To reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health prohibits indoor religious gatherings, so many local synagogues are taking their services outside or leading prayers on Zoom.

Indoor services present too great a danger, says Dan Uslan, MD, MBA, co-chief infection prevention officer for UCLA Health. But outdoor gatherings that follow health department protocols — limiting the number of people, mandating masks and physical distancing, encouraging hand-washing — are relatively low risk, he says.

“We’ve been talking for a while about the three Ws: Watch your distance, wear a mask and wash your hands,” Dr. Uslan says. “Those apply whether you’re going to Trader Joe’s or to Yom Kippur services. These are the fundamentals of how to prevent transmission.”

Congregants should remain at least six feet apart — unless they belong to the same household — and keep their masks on throughout the High Holy Day services, which can last for several hours. If portable restrooms are provided, they must be cleaned and disinfected regularly.

“If done correctly, it seems very low risk,” Dr. Uslan says.

Though synagogues typically provide prayer books and yarmulkes, celebrants might want to bring their own this year.

“It’s unlikely that the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through things like paper and fabric,” Dr. Uslan says. “But it’s probably best to be safe and have those assigned to a single individual and not share those types of items.”

Blowing of the shofar, a kind of trumpet made from a ram’s horn, heralds the beginning of the High Holy Days on Rosh Hashana and the end on Yom Kippur. For many Jews, its distinct sound is emblematic of the season. And despite the potential number of particles it expels, sounding the shofar at an outdoor service should be relatively safe, Dr. Uslan says.

Before the pandemic, a volunteer would visit Jewish patients at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and blow the shofar for each one in his or her hospital room during the High Holy Days, says Rabbi Sara Abrams, MS, MA, a staff chaplain. This year, though, the shofar will sound over Zoom for patients and staff.

But celebrating online is religiously sufficient in her eyes.

“Any time we come together to pray, to lift up our hearts, to connect with the Divine, I personally think that’s kosher,” Rabbi Abrams says. “Is it more powerful to be face-to-face with other people? I think all of us would say yes. But we do what we can do. In Judaism, there’s the notion of pikuach nefesh, or saving the life. And by making sure we’re taking safety precautions against the virus, we’re saving lives.”

Observing the holidays at home also allows for a deeper listening, both to the prayers and to ourselves, she says: “It points us to our own self-reflection and introspection.”

Dr. Uslan notes that immunocompromised people may wish to avoid even outdoor gatherings. “If the Department of Health guidelines are followed, it’s low risk but not zero risk,” he says.

For otherwise healthy folks, though, the boost of celebrating outdoors in person may be worth the small risk, he says.

“We need to maintain our social connections, and certainly religious services — especially during a very holy time like the High Holy Days — are a really important way to maintain a sense of community and connection to others,” Dr. Uslan says. “There’s a lot of benefit to coming together with your community for a holy experience, and that needs to be balanced with the very minimal risks.”