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Our Journey to a “Virtual” High Holy Days

01/20/2021 02:02:03 PM


John Kupper

It wasn’t long after the coronavirus struck with full force last March that the clergy and staff of Sukkat Shalom realized that High Holy Day services would be very different this year.  It was clear that hundreds of congregants wouldn’t be able to gather as usual at the Church of Latter-Day Saints in Wilmette.  Neither would members of the congregational choir be able to sing together.

What to do?

Fortunately, the son of a member of the congregation serves as music coordinator for Stephen Colbert in New York City.  A quick call and consultation helped cantorial soloist Kenny Lyonswright and musical director Michael Querio start planning a new direction for the September services.

Similarly, Rabbi Sam Gordon and Rabbi Carlie Daniels conferred on how to adapt services for the Days of Awe to the new conditions of the pandemic, whose services would be rendered online instead of in-person.  They quickly determined that simply streaming the regular services wouldn’t suffice as their length, alone, would discourage participants from spending hours before a computer screen.  Instead, they decided to embrace a “narrative liturgy” that could be delivered digitally.

One model for the service was an online Seder hosted by Mandy Patinkin and Jason Alexander, which received over a million views.  Brevity seemed to be an important component, so the different High Holy Day services ranged between 35 and 45 minutes.  While it included the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah, it did not for Yom Kippur – although congregants were invited to participate in a separate online Torah reading and discussion covering that portion. 

This idea extended to other aspect of the Days of Awe, such as the Book of Jonah and the Yizkor (memorial) service with the reading of names of those of blessed memory.  The goal was to spread the various services over the course of the Days of Awe, so congregants could choose which of them to observe.  

The Rosh Hashanah service opened with scenes (shot beforehand) of various families in the congregation lighting candles in their homes, linking our beloved traditions to the new technology being utilized this year.  Rabbi Daniels undertook an updating of the traditional prayer or Vidui – the alphabetical confession of sins that is central to the Kol Nidre service.

Family Services for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur incorporated special features to appeal to children.  The congregation enlisted longtime friend of Sukkat Shalom and noted puppeteer Marilyn Price to entertain and educate younger viewers on Rosh Hashanah morning.  And the shofar service featured a video of cantorial soloist Kenny Lyonswright popping up with the traditional ram’s horn at various local landmarks – from the Baha’i Temple to Wrigley Field. 

Other notable aspects of the reengineered services included the participation of musician Don Cagen, who had previously appeared at a pre-pandemic Shabbat service.  The Kol Nidre service featured the cello and piano artistry of two young members of the congregation, Jan and Natalie Nedvedsky, who had shared their talents with us in person before “social distancing” began.

For those who participated through Sukkat Shalom’s YouTube or Facebook platforms, real-time comments and conversations occurred throughout the services – lending an air of connection and community during the previously recorded services.

The tragic death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the day before Rosh Hashanah Eve required a late change in plans to acknowledge her immense influence as a Jewish-American.  Rabbi Gordon composed and recorded a tribute to the late-Justice, which was posted the next morning before Rosh Hashanah services commenced.  And he revised and re-recorded his Yom Kippur sermon to include references to Justice Ginsburg’s meaning and work.

Ultimately, the success of the virtual services was due primarily to the hard work of Sukkat Shalom’s young clergy and staff – Kenny Lyonswright, Carlie Daniels and Seth Zimmerman – with assistance from Andy Schultz and the professionals at Daily Planet Productions.  We thank them and all who participated for High Holy Day services that were meaningful, spiritual, accessible and beautiful.  They proved that our “shelter of peace” still stands strong even when transported into cyberspace.


Wed, November 29 2023 16 Kislev 5784