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'Stand Up, Go Forward.' Parkland Rabbi Adapts High Holiday Services During The Pandemic

A man blows into a Shofar on one half of the screen. It's a ritual done by Jews on Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish New Year. The other half of the screen shows a male rabbi looking at a book.
Screenshot
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via Jeffrey Levine at Kol Tikvah
Joe Bogart (left) blows the Shofar during a pre-recorded Rosh Hashana service at Kol Tikvah in Parkland. Rabbi Bradd Boxman (right) said this is one way the synagogue has adapted to the new normal during the coronavirus pandemic.

A Parkland rabbi says he's focusing his Rosh Hashana sermon on resiliency during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many congregations are holding services online as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Religious leaders are working to keep the spirit of rituals, which are meant to be experienced in person, intact on screens.

"If you are in the ocean and you see a big wave heading for you, if you turn and run the other way, most often it's going to knock you down," said Bradd Boxman, a rabbi at Kol Tikvah in Parkland. "But if you turn and walk into the wave, certainly you stand up to it and you walk through it. That's a metaphor for the times that we're living in right now."

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He has pre-recorded Friday night's service for Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish New Year. It’ll probably be the first time that many people will be participating in High Holidays without going to synagogue.

WLRN's Alexander Gonzalez spoke with Boxman about how he and his synagogue have responded to this challenging moment.

WLRN: Synagogues typically fill up for High Holidays. What are you doing differently this year since there won’t be in-person services?

BOXMAN: It just seems futile to try to do an in-person experience as much as we like to think we could. It wouldn't be like anything people were used to. They wouldn't be able to hug or greet each other in the same normal way. You wouldn't be able to sing because singing is one of the worst ways of spreading the disease, as we know.

So we decided that the only thing to do was to pre-record all our services — to create the service in a way that would be engaging in a different format. The beautiful part about recording it, as well, is that people can have the flexibility to watch it whenever they want.

Tell me more about some of the pre-production.

We wanted to invite our congregants into the sanctuary for a lead-up to the holidays, so they could, as I call it, “touch base with holy space.” We asked them to bring a picture of themselves or a stuffed animal and put it in the pews. There will be physically a representation of themselves in the service during this taping.

Family photos are taped to the pews inside the Kol Tikvah synagogue in Parkland. It's a way for congregants to feel present during the High Holy Days as the pandemic continues.
Courtesy Jeffrey Levine
Family photos taped to the pews inside the Kol Tikvah synagogue in Parkland. It's a way for congregants to feel present during the High Holy Days as the pandemic continues, according to Rabbi Bradd Boxman.

The beautiful part about this, too, is people usually have to buy tickets to come in because that's just how synagogues support themselves on the High Holy Days, and it's restricted to how many people can sit in the sanctuary. We can now reach an audience that we've never reached before. We are making this available to anybody in the digital universe locally and well beyond that.

Since you're always leading services during the High Holidays, will this be the first time you're spending it alongside your family? Will you be in the synagogue Friday night?

That's the weird part. I've been a rabbi for 35 years. If you add my student rabbi years to that, this’d be about close to 40 years that I've been doing High Holy Days. I will be at home watching myself on television. It seems too bizarre to imagine. My family's loving it. I'll actually be able to be a participant with them and not leading in front of them.

Was there any other reason that you decided to have it pre-recorded?

We were concerned about anti-Semitic behavior — that people may try to hack into services. That is a real threat in the Jewish community that we're afraid of on the High Holy Days.

Has that happened during other services, say for Shabbat?

It hasn't happened to us, but it has happened to colleagues that I know around the country where there have been Zoom bombers who have put up swastikas. I've heard [about] anti-Semitic rants that override the audio where people have had to take it down immediately.

While we're doing most of our main services pre-recorded, we are doing some things live on Zoom, and we're only giving those codes out to our congregants. We're not making them publicly available.

Rosh Hashana is followed by 10 days of repentance or atonement, leading up to Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. What's your message to congregants during this extremely challenging and uncertain time?

My sermon title is "A Uniquely Jewish Approach to Surviving COVID-19." We know what to do physically to protect ourselves, in terms of social distancing, washing our hands, taking temperature and all the things that we have to do.

But how do we survive spiritually? This place that so many people are just in such isolation from each other.

I will be at home watching myself on television. It seems too bizarre to imagine. My family's loving it. I'll actually be able to be a participant with them and not leading in front of them.
Bradd Boxman, rabbi at Kol Tikvah in Parkland

Certainly we're a people well acquainted with the night. Having been through so much persecution, oppression, we are well equipped to find those resources within to persevere and withstand adversity. I ask people to look deep within to find those resources that have helped us face that night many times before.

How have you been feeling and thinking about all of this personally? The pandemic as well as this moment of racial injustice?

I have a great nephew who is Jewish and African American. It was after George Floyd. He came home with a statement, “America is out to get us.”

This is what a 4-year-old is already picking up on. This sense that being African American in this country is not a sense of safety.

So Yom Kippur morning, I'm going to be speaking on a sermon entitled "Why Racial Justice Lies at the Intersection of Judaism and Morality, Black Lives Matter."

Why Judaism is well equipped to understand this moment in time that we're living in, that needs to move us forward as a nation, to come to grips with addressing the original sin of our country, which has been 400 years of oppression of African Americans, and how we need to help work to undo systemic racism in our country.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.