‘Rule of six’ ushers in a bittersweet new year for Jewish communities

Image credit: Marc Morris/Jewish News

By Lianne Kolirin

As temperatures begin to drop and autumn creeps in, British synagogues are usually gearing up for their busiest time of year.

Services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, are often ticketed affairs, with many of the larger synagogues utilising additional premises for overflow services.

Far from being just the observant and orthodox, this is a time when many who might otherwise consider themselves to be fairly secular show up for synagogue — and they do so in their droves. But not this year.

Typically celebrated by eating honey cake and apple dipped in honey, celebrants usually wish each other “a sweet new year”. The front page of this week’s Jewish News, however, struck a different tone: “A bittersweet new year”, its headline read.

While some places of worship are open in a limited capacity, others have decided to keep things virtual.

Reform Judaism is streaming all its festival services online. Rabbi Celia Surget, who chairs the Assembly of Reform Rabbis and Cantors, said: “While we know it will be hard for many of our members that we cannot gather physically, especially in some cases with family members, we are really impressed by the hard work of our clergy and lay leaders to ensure Reform Jews will have the option to meet safely and all together for the High Holy Days online for a meaningful spiritual experience.”

This adaptation is not an option for the United Synagogue and its members, however, as traditionally observant Jews do not use technology on the Sabbath or High Holy days such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

While the situation is fluid, the United Synagogue’s position at the time of publication is that services will continue as planned, providing guidelines — such as mask-wearing and social distancing — are adhered to. Services are being staggered and adapted to avoid communal singing, and religious texts cannot be shared.

Capacity at most services has been cut to well under a quarter, while other rituals have been affected. Part of the ceremony is symbolised by the blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn, but this can now only be done outdoors in short bursts. Tashlich, the ritual of casting sins into the water before the day of atonement, can no longer be carried out communally either.

For many, however, the biggest impact will be social as big multi-generational festive meals are forbidden under the government’s newly introduced “rule of six”.

Richard Verber, director of communications for the United Synagogue, said: “This will be a very unusual Jewish New Year. Synagogues across the country will be depleted. Some will even be closed. Families will be forced to spend the holiest days of the year apart.

“Many members of our community are self-isolating. Some are alone. Alone, but not forgotten. Across our communities, honey cakes are being delivered. Phone calls are being made. Shopping and medicines are being dropped off.

“In our shuls, lay and rabbinic teams are putting the final touches to the most intricate of plans to enable Rosh Hashanah services to take place for thousands of our members across our communities in a Covid-secure way. And they’re doing this while being acutely aware of the fact that government guidance could change at any moment.”

Among those most deeply affected will be the elderly and vulnerable, many of whom are supported by Jewish Care. Many of the 10,000 people whom the charity supports each week will be feeling even more isolated and lonely over the holiday season under the new guidelines. One of the many ways Jewish Care is supporting them is through meals on wheels which is run by an army of volunteers, including Mitch Winehouse, father of the late singer Amy Winehouse.

“I’ve been delivering meals on wheels since the start of lockdown most days,” he said. “I love delivering as it’s a vital lifeline to the elderly and vulnerable in our area.”

This period is also traditionally a time for paying respect to lost loved ones with a visit to their graves. Jewish Care staff will be assisting those they support by sharing pictures of their loved ones’ graves with them.

Rabbi David Mason of Muswell Hill Synagogue, north London, said no more than 97 people would be allowed to attend services at his synagogue at any one time — compared with 900 who attended on the first day of Rosh Hashanah alone last year.

“This is a time of change where you don’t know what’s around the corner,” he said. “But I feel positive that we have held together. We need to get through the festivals, but prioritise the whole year to be in touch with each other and be a whole community.”

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue told the Religion Media Centre: “The synagogue buildings may be closed, but communal life still continues.”

As such, he has sent his congregants tips on how to create a religious atmosphere while following prayers at home online. This includes lighting candles, switching off phones and dressing up for the occasion. Helpful, yes, but not a substitute for the real thing.

Laura Marks, founder of Common Good, a consultancy on issues of interfaith and gender, said: “I love going to synagogue for the festivals, more than anything, to feel a part of the community. There is something life-affirming for me about hundreds of people being in one place and sharing the rituals going back thousands of years.

“Even if we get out our prayer books, wear ritual clothing and follow services online at home (an option for less orthodox communities) I honestly don’t know if we can fill that void.”