The fall High Holidays is usually a time when Jews worldwide flock to synagogues for communal prayer. In Israel, thousands of citizens and tourists make the traditional pilgrimage to Jerusalem, especially the Western Wall. But this year, in the shadow of the coronavirus, the holidays are being celebrated in prayer capsules, either on the street or in small pods in synagogue courtyards.
The fervent spirit of the High Holiday prayers, traditionally recited in unison in the largest communal gatherings of the year, is now muted by masks and social distancing. The strange quietness is felt especially in ultra-Orthodox communities, which both in Israel and in the Diaspora have been identified as some of the main epicenters of the coronavirus spread.
Around the world, we are all living in a unique moment in history. The widespread nature of the COVID-19 virus has never been experienced before and will hopefully — after it finally passes — never be seen again. Around the world, humanity is shocked by the images of an empty and dark Times Square in New York, and equally amazed by scenes of sparse crowds and orderly lines of Muslim pilgrims circling the Ka’bah in Mecca.
In Israel, as we experience a time of immense political, economic, and health turmoil, our prayers to be inscribed in the Book of Life in the New Year are especially intense in 2020, even through our masks and socially distanced capsules.
This video includes images of the 2020 High Holiday season in Israel, just as the country has entered a second national lockdown in the struggle against the coronavirus. Men and women pray for forgiveness at the Western Wall, where the huge plaza is divided into a surrealistic maze of white capsules. Today, penitents kiss the stones of the Wall through face masks.
I also visited Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, where immunology professor Cyrille Cohen — a trained shofar-blower — explains that an Israeli chief rabbi has directed congregations to cover the ends of the animal horns with masks to prevent aerosol transmission of the coronavirus during a crowded prayer setting.
Finally, in Bnei Brak, I capture individuals praying together — while each is isolated in his own apartment window. I whimsically labeled this section of the video, “Zoom prayer meeting.”