As a Conservative congregation, we had the challenge of taking last year’s five-hour Rosh Hashanah service and full-day Yom Kippur, and presenting the traditional liturgy virtually. We also sought to reflect our core identity as a participatory congregation. We succeeded. Our High Holiday services combined 13.5 hours of prerecorded material, combined with live stream presentations. Over a hundred congregant families participated. Multiple singers harmonized many of the prayers. Each of the Torah readings were prerecorded and chanted by an experienced reader surrounded by family. We even had the traditional priestly blessings by four Kohanim, each filmed separately with an iPhone. We did so not for entertainment effect, but because it was the traditional format. A highlight for many was our prayer leader, Amy Robinson Katz, walking up the aisle of the empty synagogue with the voice of a deceased, locally-beloved Cantor Philip Moddel chanting the Hineni from a recording from 1968 with Amy harmonizing.
On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, with a completely prerecorded service, I relaxed on the couch. My wife, Linda, commented that it was the first time that we had sat together for High Holiday services in my thirty-two years as a rabbi. When we finished praying, the YouTube algorithm automatically took us to a major Reform synagogue in Los Angeles, which we enjoyed. Linda commented that the big synagogue production was like receiving a beautifully-printed card and the CBI service felt like an elegant, handwritten note. As our services continued, our audience grew due to becoming a “recommended” YouTube. For Kol Nidre we had over five thousand views, with the chats revealing an international audience.
Our congregants have responded with gratitude and have exceeded the hoped for annual High Holiday donations. The key to our success was Amy’s vision for putting together pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle, combined with her professional background as a construction project manager that enabled skillful execution. It was a team effort with Carl Cedar doing a pair of innovative, musical Family Services, Hal Hurwitz sharing the bimah for a variety of live services, Helene Coulter and Luis Garcia with technical support, and so many congregants, both as facilitators and participants. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, said that the goal of religion is to make the old new and the new holy. In these challenging times, we are gratified by how our team’s use of new technology and traditional liturgy combined for holy moments.
Rabbi Elie Spitz has served as the Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel of Tustin, CA since graduation from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1988. To see the CBI services go to www.cbi18.org.