High Holidays in the Time of COVID-19: A Kehila Saga

(Photo by Elias Punch)

By Kehilat Shalom Calgary

(AJNews) – Throughout recent months, Kehilat Shalom Calgary’s Board members, lay leaders, and rabbi have dedicated themselves to one overarching goal: conducting in-person High Holiday services.

“The High Holidays are an exceptional time for Jewish people to reconnect with their community,” explains Rabbi Leonard Cohen.

“For so many, the religious highlight of the year is hearing the Shofar, or praying Yizkor for loved ones, or even reaching the end of the Yom Kippur fast at Ne’ilah. So we wanted to make that happen.”

He says that the Kehila’s goal was to make High Holiday services both safe and inspiring.

The congregation has implemented significant changes. Prayer services have been relocated to a large gymnasium to permit social distancing, with open doors for freer air circulation.  Congregational singing and dialogue are subdued by the facemasks worn by all.  Services are shortened, and communal eating and drinking are suspended, to ensure collective protection.  Safety remains paramount.

In spite of these changes, Kehila services remain lively and warm.  “We’ve been doing Shabbat together in person for the past six weeks,” says congregational president Sam Fishman, “and things have been going so well.  Those coming to our High Holidays will see they’re in a safe surrounding.”  Facemasks, water bottles, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes are readily available for anyone who needs them.

The Quarantined Cantor

Part of what makes High Holidays services exceptional is the liturgical music, as the chanting of such prayers as Kol Nidre and Avinu Malkeinu is meant to stir hearts and awaken souls.  Since the passing of cantor Rebecca Levant z”l in 2019, Kehilat Shalom has hosted guest cantors for the High Holidays.  This year, Kehilat Shalom is bringing in Cantor Emeritus Cory Winter of California (see Alberta Jewish News, August 10, 2020).

Bruno Kahane, past president of Kehilat Shalom, says, “The amazing voice that this Cantor has – it’s a must-see. Plus he’s got such deep knowledge of everything Jewish.”  Kahane collaborated with lawyer David Wolfman to ensure compliance with all laws, safety considerations and documentation to make it possible to bring the cantor in from the USA.

Cantor Winter has had to commit himself to a fourteen-day quarantine upon arrival to Canada, prior to High Holidays.  The congregation has been delivering food and groceries to his door, and renting him the musical equipment he needs in preparation for this year’s services.  Cantor Winter is also a composer and will be creating new works during his quarantine period.

Countering the Isolation

High Holiday services bring together more members of the Jewish community than any other annual event.  The observance of the Jewish New Year provides a welcome opportunity for many to reconnect with friends and acquaintances.

Leslie Levant adds that the need for social reconnection is exceptionally important this year:

“Because of COVID, many people feel, and are, isolated.  It is a wonderful thing to  be together in prayer and have the opportunity to see our fellow congregants and visitors at shul and have some social connection with them. It is a comfort to sing traditional songs, hear a well prepared sermon and be together.  I look forward to greeting everyone at the upcoming High Holidays.”

The Rabbi and Board of Kehilat Shalom Calgary look forward to seeing you at High Holiday services and sharing this highlight of the religious calendar with you and your loved ones.  For more information, email info@kscalgary.org or visit www.kscalgary.org.

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