By Lianne Kolirin
Many Jewish people living in Britain today consider themselves secular. But while they may not cover their heads, keep kosher or observe the Sabbath, the chances are that they do mark Yom Kippur to some extent.
This weekend, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement, is for many the only time — aside perhaps from Rosh Hashanah 10 days earlier — when they go to synagogue. Indeed, such is the demand that synagogues in areas with a high Jewish population often have to hire extra premises for overflow services.
The coronavirus means that overflows will not feature in this year’s commemorations. Reform synagogues will instead stage their services online, but it is not an option for the more orthodox strain as technology is strictly forbidden on Yom Kippur — as it is on Shabbat, the Sabbath, and all high holy days.
The United Synagogue will on Sunday share a Yizkor service, a section of the ceremony that remembers the dead, several hours before Yom Kippur commences. The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, will lead the “poignant” online service, featuring “a memorial prayer for the victims of Covid-19”.
Jews traditionally fast from sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur, until 25 hours later. Spending the day in synagogue with family and friends often helps people through. While some synagogues will open their doors, offerings will be socially distanced and catering for far fewer people than normal. Consequently, religious leaders have had to think creatively.
One such person is Rabbi Yoni Golker, associate rabbi of St John’s Wood Synagogue in northwest London. This week he shared a captivating video online called My Brother’s Killer is Now My Friend. The footage, which lasts for about 40 minutes, is a video interview he conducted with a Californian doctor, Denise Taylor, and Ronnie Fields — the man who killed her younger brother more than 35 years ago.
Neither Taylor nor Fields is Jewish, but like Golker both believe their tale transcends religion, race and nationality. Taylor, now 58, had just graduated from university in 1984 when her brother Bo, 19, was shot dead by Fields in a bungled cannabis deal. Fields, then 24, was sentenced to a minimum of 27 years. Taylor and her father had called for a life sentence without parole. Fast forward to 2016 and the bereaved pair were in court again — now urging the judge to release the man who killed Bo.
The powerful interview, which is available to watch through USTV, the United Synagogue’s video-sharing platform, and YouTube, was released in time for Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Golker, who has his own YouTube channel, said: “I wanted to connect with my community at a time which is obviously challenging in a meaningful way. A lot of my community are shielding and not coming to synagogue so I have been doing a lot of stuff virtually.
“I wanted to do something so they would feel like they could tap into the energy of the High Holy Days and those types of themes that are quite challenging at the best of times: atonement, redemption and forgiveness.
“My hope is that people will find it inspiring and learn from it. I am not telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t feel in that situation. I’m just sharing a story.”
York’s Liberal Jewish community is streaming a short film entitled Jonah and the Big Fish as part of its family-friendly service to be jointly held with Birmingham Progressive Synagogue and Three Counties Liberal Jewish Community. Aimed at young families, the 10-minute animation tells the biblical tale through shadow puppets. The Old Testament story is traditionally read out in synagogue on Yom Kippur because it tells of Jonah disobeying the word of God, before atoning for his wrongdoing.
After its livestreamed service, members of Maidenhead Reform Synagogue will break the fast together by “clinking glasses over the internet and chatting to each other after a day of prayer”, according to Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain.
He said: “This is going to be another long tunnel we are about to go through as a country, but all tunnels have ends, and so will this one; and if we stick together in spirit, we will come through together.”
The situation is a similar one beyond British shores, with rabbis and their congregations — as with most denominations — having to think outside the box.
The Hasidic movement Chabad has set up a Yom Kippur microsite on its website, offering a whole host of “Covid resources”, including a page headlined “14 tips for an amazing Yom Kippur at home” and printable highlights from the prayer book used in synagogue at this time.
In other countries, including parts of the United States, some communities will be hosting outdoor services. One place where this is planned in Israel, though numbers are limited to 20 following the government’s latest move to introduce an even stricter lockdown on Friday afternoon — two days before Yom Kippur.
Following an all-night meeting, Benjamin Netanayhu’s cabinet announced tougher restrictions after he said a surge in infections was pushing the nation to “the edge of the abyss”. Over the past week, the number of daily new cases has reached nearly 7,000 among a population of nine million, severely straining the resources of some hospitals, Reuters reported.
Schools will remain closed, but synagogues will stay open on Yom Kippur, although the number of worshippers will be limited. Religious parties in the coalition government had fiercely opposed shuttering synagogues.
Shana Tova! United Synagogues publication of Yom Kippur