Late Saturday night in the parking lot of a Jewish center in Oak Park, a crowd of about 30 Orthodox worshippers gathered under a tent to recite Hebrew prayers of forgiveness. With men on one side and women on the other, they read from a book of prayers that are known as Selichot, using small flashlights or iPhone lights to illuminate the text.
The congregants in the parking lot of Congregation Beth Shalom were taking part in services that are held one week before the start of the Jewish High Holidays, which begin Friday evening. Usually held indoors, the service was held outside this year with members wearing masks and socially distant from each other.
“The High Holidays are a time of reflection thinking about what’s important,” Michael Singer, of Huntington Woods, said after the prayers by the Kehillat Etz Chayim congregation of Huntington Woods concluded. “Some of the things that we take for a given, like health .. we’re even more focused on that than ever.”
The coronavirus pandemic this year has disrupted life for many in metro Detroit’s Jewish community. But as their holiest time of the fall approaches, they are working on unique ways to still celebrate Rosh Hashanah, also known as the Jewish New Year, and, 10 days later, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
“In times of stress and times of anxiety, we turn to our faith,” said Rabbi Michael Moskowitz of Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield. “And part of that is being together with other people. Obviously, we don’t have that right now. And so that’s a challenge.”
Like many other Jewish congregations in Michigan, Temple Shir Shalom has been relying on online services during the past six months. While being apart physically is a challenge, the synagogue has seen an increase in people attending online.
“Over these six months, more people are online with us during services and participating in our services than ever before,” Moskowitz said. But the desire to meet in person is resulting in some changes for the high holidays in contrast to Passover in the spring, when services were usually online-only, said local leaders.
At Temple Shir Shalom, the traditional blowing of the shofar, a key part of Rosh Hashanah services, will be held outdoors in the parking lot for the first time with a drive-through service. Congregants will sit in their cars at scheduled times as the shofar is blown to mark the Jewish New Year, said Audrey Bloomberg, who’s helping coordinate the services.
Some local synagogues are planning trips to parks in metro Detroit for Tashlikh, a ritual during Rosh Hashanah that is a symbolic casting off of one’s sins by throwing an object, such as bread or water soluble paper into a body of water, like a river.
The congregation of Kehillat Etz Chayim that gathered in Oak Park last week will be holding outdoor services for the High Holidays under a tent on a lawn.
And some are to hold holiday dinners at their homes with limited numbers of guests, unlike during Passover, when most avoided dinners with guests outside of the immediate family, Bloomberg said.
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There are about 72,000 Jews living in metro Detroit, according to the 2018 Detroit Jewish Population Study. They are a diverse mix of different denominations, with Reform making up the largest group at 35% of the Jewish community, followed by Conservative at 20%, 9% Orthodox, 2% Reconstructionist. About 31% identify as “just Jewish.”
The diversity is reflected in how they have responded to the pandemic, with Orthodox congregations more likely to still hold in-person services during the pandemic, said Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Kehillat Etz Chayim and the executive director of the metro Detroit branch of the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee.
The coronavirus has affected the Jewish community like other communities, with the ultra-Orthodox hit more so than other parts, Lopatin said.