Rosh Hashanah marks new year for Jewish faith

REHOBOTH BEACH — This year has been a difficult one for most, considering the COVID-19 pandemic and everything else that has occurred in its wake.

However, for those of the Jewish faith, today begins Rosh Hashanah, when members of the religion get a head start on moving on from a coronavirus-plagued year and flipping the page to the year 5781 on the Jewish calendar.

“Rosh Hashanah is the head of the Jewish year. It’s the beginning of another Jewish year,” said Rabbi Beth Cohen, who is rabbi emeritus at the Seaside Jewish Community in Rehoboth Beach and the rabbi-in-residence at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes. “This year, we start 5781. Where do we count from? How do we get that many years?

“Rabbis somewhere along the line, a long, long time ago, started calculating, based on the Hebrew Scriptures, when they thought creation occurred. So they started counting from then. I think 5780 was a bad year for just about everybody.”

COVID-19 safety precautions, such as wearing face masks and practicing social distancing, continue into the Jewish New Year, when the vast majority of High Holy Days services will be held virtually at synagogues around the world.

“Rosh Hashanah is a time that we begin anew,” Rabbi Cohen said. “We basically consider it the birthday of the world and the beginning of the Jewish people if we go back to Scripture and to the time of Mount Sinai and the crossing of the sea. It was kind of when we started as a peoplehood. So we renew that every year.”

Rabbi Cohen said that attending services virtually is nothing new. She said churches of every kind have been taping services for several years now, so that shut-ins, the sick and people who can’t get to the events can participate via livestreaming. She said that the Seaside Jewish Community has been recording its services at Epworth United Methodist Church for the past 15 years.

“It is challenging,” she said. “I’m in touch with a lot of different colleagues who are in their own synagogues, and the vast majority of congregations across the world, not just in the United States, are doing virtual services. There are some that are trying to do something in person with appropriate social distancing and taking care of health concerns. The vast majority are doing virtual.”

Rabbi Cohen, who served as the religious leader at the Seaside Jewish Community for 14 years before retiring a little more than two years ago, said that Rosh Hashanah always leads into what she called “the big holiday — Yom Kippur,” which always comes 10 days after the Jewish New Year.

“Rosh Hashanah is also a time of reflection and repentance. Yom Kippur is a day on which we ask forgiveness,” the rabbi said. “We take a look at where have we missed the mark and what do we need to do in order to move forward? And what kind of forgiveness do we have to ask? On Yom Kippur, we learn that we’re asking forgiveness from God.

“However, in order to get to the place of asking forgiveness from God, we have to figure out if we’ve hurt other people, and our obligation, our responsibility, is to ask forgiveness from others that we may have hurt.”

Rabbi Cohen added: “The word Rosh Hashanah — Rosh means ‘head,’ Hashanah is ‘of the year.’ And Yom Kippur — Yom is the Hebrew word for ‘day,’ and the Kippur is ‘it’s the day of atonement.’”

Seaside Jewish Community Interim Rabbi Kevin Bernstein said it has certainly been a memorable summer, just for all the wrong reasons.

“I am sure that this past summer is one that we will remember, not so fondly, as hopefully the one and only pandemic summer,” Rabbi Bernstein wrote to his Seaside Jewish Community congregation on the synagogue’s website. “Knowing that perhaps the most important part of these services is feeling as though we have gathered as a community and realizing that we will not have that exact same experience this year — we’ve attempted to create a virtual gathering that will be inspiring for all of us as we look forward to a challenging year for ourselves, our faith community, our country and our society.”

The Seaside Jewish Community’s Rosh Hashanah services can be seen this morning at 10 on YouTube. Tashlich will take place at multiple locations throughout Sussex County at 5 p.m. Saturday (weather permitting), and masks must be worn and social distancing maintained.

Marsha Davis, president of Seaside Jewish Community, said the era of COVID-19 has brought on changes — even some that aren’t so bad.

“As I sit down to write this message, past holiday memories fill my mind,” Ms. Davis wrote on the Seaside Jewish Community website. “I remember the excitement of preparation for the family gathering and of so much cooking … not my best talent. Each year, I could never get the children dressed and out of the house on time. It was always a rush.

“This year is different, in so many ways. There is quiet time to prepare mentally for my holiday observances. My family will be my congregation, my community, and best of all, I can order my food from Rosenfeld’s. The pandemic has offered me more solitude time for reflection, despite the loss of the hugs and shared prayers while sitting with family and friends. My community has become more important, and my effort has become stronger to connect, prepare and participate.”

Congregation Beth Sholom celebrates new year
Congregation Beth Sholom, at 340 N. Queen St. in Dover, will also celebrate the Jewish New Year virtually Saturday.

“At Congregation Beth Sholom, we will be streaming all of our services,” said Herb Konowitz, who serves as the finance chairman of the group. “We have invested in the equipment in order to do that. The synagogue has been closed since March 11. We also are using Zoom for our meetings.”

Beth Sholom Rabbi Peggy Berman de Prophetis, in an online letter to the congregation at the Dover synagogue, noted that while much will be different this year — with all of the services taking place via Zoom — a lot of it will remain the same. The services will be shorter than they have been in the past, and there will be no shofar blowing in the synagogue.

“These High Holy Days will be unlike any others we have shared together,” Rabbi de Prophetis wrote. “There is more uncertainty in the world and in our own country with the coronavirus pandemic and the national election coming up. We will not be together in Beth Sholom, although you will see the synagogue in our exciting new streaming system. And we will see each other on Zoom.

“But these HHDs are going to be an anchor for our Jewish lives. First, because we will be saying the same prayers as every year at this time. Your prayer leaders, song leaders and soloists will be the same. Your Torah and haftarah readers will contribute their parts, but from home.”

She added, “The purpose of these days will be comfortingly and inspirationally the same: celebrating a new year with joy and hope for a better one to come, self-examination and repentance so that we may begin with a clean slate.”

There will be a Rosh Hashanah virtual service at Congregation Beth Sholom this morning at 9:30 via Zoom. There will be another Zoom service conducted Sunday at 9:30 a.m. and a shofar-blowing in the field behind the synagogue, followed by Tashlich, a customary Jewish atonement ritual meaning “casting off,” at Silver Lake with masks and appropriate social distancing.

Rosh Hashanah is one of Jewish people’s holiest days, and no work is permitted on the holiday. Much of the day is normally spent in synagogue, where the daily liturgy is expanded. A popular observance during the holiday is eating apples dipped in honey, a symbol of the wish for a sweet new year.

Caroline B. Schwartz, president of Congregation Beth Sholom, wrote to its members that maybe the COVID-19 pandemic helps people remember that they were taking too many things for granted pre-coronavirus.

“Do you remember how, as a young child, you would carry on your day-to-day routine, mindless of dangers and free to be yourself?” wrote Ms. Schwartz. “You would play, eat, do what your parents said, tag along with them when they went out, or stay with a babysitter, or go to school — all without the worry of covering your face, except when you sneezed or coughed.

“Those days seem to have been mundane but taken for granted. Perhaps the COVID pandemic is a sign from God for us to pull up our bootstraps and value our surroundings, our friends and our lives as we were mindlessly living it. How much do you miss your freedom? How much are you yearning to return to the old normal? It is not an easy world to navigate these days.”