High Holiday content goes online for the Jewish New Year

Musicians and rabbis, chefs and writers take on questions of spirituality and knock on the gates of heaven with Jerusalem cultural center Beit Avi Chai

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Pianist Shlomi Shaban participated in Beit Avi Chai's comprehensive content for the 5781 High Holidays (Courtesy Lior Keter)
Pianist Shlomi Shaban participated in Beit Avi Chai's comprehensive content for the 5781 High Holidays (Courtesy Lior Keter)

Rosh Hashanah brings apples and honey and wishes for a sweet new year, but for some, actual hope and spiritual meaning may be hard to come by.

Jerusalem cultural center Beit Avi Chai is stepping into that spiritual void with “Open the Gates,” an online program in Hebrew and English for the month of Tishrei, the period of the Jewish holidays.

It’s a smorgasbord of High Holiday content, with some 40 lectures, two podcast series, video content and several conversations about music and liturgy.

“It’s hard to imagine the period of the Jewish holidays under coronavirus, and it appears that it will be even harder to experience it that way,” said David Rozenson, CEO of Beit Avi Chai. “This year, we wanted to give the public the opportunity to connect to the atmosphere of the holidays celebrated from home, virtually, and through different methods.”

Singer Eviatar Banai (Courtesy Revital Topyul)

The contributors come from all segments of the Israeli cultural world, including  singer Eviatar Banai speaking about happiness and forgiveness, pianist Shlomi Shaban and poet Amichai Hasson waxing poetic about musician Leonard Cohen, and Ariel Hirscheld rhapsodizing about S.Y. Agnon’s Yom Kippur stories.

A musical culinary series with Chef Hedai Offaim will bring musicians to his home as he prepares his version of traditional foods for the holidays — like lentil-stuffed pretzels for Rosh Hashanah and a date and apple tart for Sukkot — including singers Daniella Spector, Shai Tsabari, Rona Kenan and Alon Eder.

There are other treats, like recipes from chef Meir Adoni, High Holiday liturgy sung by Ehud Banai, and a conversation about modern biblical thought with writer Meir Shalev.

There’s also a cadre of well-known local lecturers, spiritual leaders and teachers who contributed their expertise and ideas to the virtual experience.

Mishael Zion, a Jerusalem rabbi, educator and community entrepreneur, was asked to create a four-episode holiday experience podcast combining music, prayers and insights.

“They wanted something that would catapult a person into the raw, emotional space that the holidays can create,” said Zion. “And these holidays are going to be so difficult.”

For Zion, that meant bringing listeners to the early morning services at a Kurdish synagogue in Jerusalem, where he goes each year for the Selichot prayers, said each day in the run-up to the High Holidays. He also gathered leaders and thinkers from the global English-speaking community, including conversations with US community leaders Rabbi Ebn Leader, Rabbi Art Green and Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld.

“It was much more emotional than I expected it would be,” said Zion, thinking of his Jerusalem synagogue community of 120 families who haven’t met properly since Purim, back in March, and who won’t be meeting over the High Holidays. “I”m a person who loves the High Holidays and I tried to connect to that.”

The first batch of Beit Avi Chai content pertains to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which fall on September 18-20 and September 27-28, respectively. Rabbanit Sarah Segal-Katz chose to focus on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, for her lecture about uncertainty and freedom during the coronavirus.

“There’s the year that was, and where do we take ourselves in this coming year,” said Segal-Katz, who had periods in her life when she couldn’t fast on Yom Kippur because of pregnancy or nursing, and had to figure out how to mark the day despite the lack of the usual rituals. This year, she said, offers some of the same challenges.

Rabbanit Sarah Segal-Katz is one of the speakers for the Beit Avi Chai High Holiday digital programming (Courtesy Sarah Segal-Katz)

It’s the time of year to recognize that the entire world is in the same situation, pointed out Segal-Katz, bringing some to say thanks for the slowdown in their lives, while others will pray to be released from the breakdown in their health, financial stability or broken relationships.

“Every house is dealing with this,” she said. “It’s the dynamic of the individual and the group, and what do we ask for, what do we do with this new year, what opportunities should we try and see?”

It’s a period consumed with comings and goings, said Rabbanit Yafit Kleimer, whose lecture “Going Through the Gates” has more meaning this year in light of the pandemic that’s been raging.

Rabbanit Yafit Kleimer is one of the speakers in the Beit Avi Chai high holiday digital program (Courtesy Yafit Kleimer)

Her entire family was ill with the coronavirus in March, and the pandemic has brought home the message that life is an exit and entrance, and there are many gates.

“Sometimes the gates are locked and you have to find the key; sometimes you’re scared of what’s on the other side,” said Kleimer, who speaks about the key of prayer, which always includes an element of hope, and the key of relationships, knowing the people who will carry you through difficult times.

Among the many details that will feel different this year is the length of the services, which will be shorter than usual as congregations seek to cut down on the time spent in synagogue, said Dr. Edwin Seroussi, a musicologist who takes a look at the piyutim, the liturgical poems that pad out the High Holiday prayers.

“If we were to only pray the core prayers, services wold be much shorter,” said Seroussi.

Dr. Edwin Seroussi, a musicologist, will delve into liturgical poems and their place in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy for Beit Avi Chai’s digital program (Courtesy Edwin Seroussi)

The poems were added over time, creating a more sophisticated layer of prayer. They were composed by liturgy professionals, said Seroussi, in order to articulate the hopes and wishes of regular folk who didn’t have the language to express those thoughts.

Once the liturgical poems were added to the canon of prayers, they accompanied Jewish prayer for centuries.

Seroussi looks at two liturgical poems, “Avinu Malkeinu” and “Shofet Kol Haaretz,” as part of his lecture, noting that the repetitive nature of each poem “can put you into a trance in the right mood.”

The Beit Avi Chai program is available in English and Hebrew, with four holiday sections pertaining to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simhat Torah.

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