Rabbi Yosef David

Rabbi Yosef David (right) of Aish HaTorah and daughter Adina David sound the shofar during a visit with Kimberly Vonk (left) and Carter Vonk.

If the Jewish people had to choose a theme for Rosh Hashanah 5781, it would probably be something like, “Think outside the box.” 

Any other year, Jews everywhere would flock to their places of worship en masse to pray, schmooze, sing “Avinu Malkeinu” and hug each other before heading to the homes of family and friends to overeat brisket and honey cake. This year, the Days of Awe will be different because we are still living in a pandemic. But that won’t stop many St. Louis families from keeping the faith, albeit with a twist on tradition.

Normally, Jewish worshipers sit in pews surrounded by stained glass windows, listening to sermons inside crowded sanctuaries, dressed in their best attire and uncomfortable shoes. But this year is anything but normal, and local Jewish organizations, synagogues and families have created new ways to reflect and repent. 

What follows are just a few of the creative ways Jewish St. Louisans will be observing the High Holidays this year. 

United Hebrew awakens the soul in the great outdoors

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg

Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation sounds the shofar at Millennium Park in Creve Coeur. Photo: Wyatt Weed

At a recent Shofar Sunday at Millennium Park in Creve Coeur, Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation blasts the sounds of tekiah to wake up the souls who showed up to sit 6 feet apart on blankets and stadium chairs, water bottles in hand, relaxing under tall leafy trees. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, her husband, Lee, reads the words of Psalm 27 that remind gatherers that even in the most difficult, challenging times in our lives, God is always there. 

“I think the best thing that we can learn from Judaism is the notion of ‘adapt and adjust,’ ” she said. “This is something our people have had to do for probably our entire existence. Not to make light of historic events, especially horrible ones, but think about it: Our ancestors wandered the desert for 40 years – adapt and adjust. The Temples were destroyed – adapt and adjust.  Expelled from countries and homes – adapt and adjust. Jews have always found ways to be Jewish and do Jewish even in the direst of circumstances. 

“While this pandemic has been scary, terrifying, annoying, every word you can throw at it, we have found ways to adapt and adjust, to continue living and doing, in the best way we can.”

For United Hebrew members Andy Babitz, his wife, Diana, and their children, Emily, 5, and Eli, 3, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are usually a whirlwind of activity. This year, however, is all about the moment. Instead of going back and forth to visit relatives and attend services, this year is a change of pace.

Andy and Diana Babitz

Andy and Diana Babitz and their children Emily, 5, and Eli, 3, take part in United Hebrew’s recent Shofar Sunday at Millennium Park in Creve Coeur. Photo: Wyatt Weed

“We enjoy events like Shofar Sunday because it allows us to interact with other humans in person, gives us something to do with the kiddos outside the house, and is a great way to learn more about Elul and prepare for the high holidays,” said Andy Babitz, who is a vice president of UH.

“We are planning to have Rosh Hashanah with our immediate nuclear family, siblings, nieces and nephews. And for Yom Kippur, we’re going to my cousin’s to watch the Kol Nidre services outside, social distanced.”

However, one tradition remains the same: singing with the band. 

“Every year, I sing a few songs during the live services with Cantor Ron Eichaker and the band,” Babitz said. “This year, since we’re going virtually, the cantor prerecorded me singing the songs with the guitar player. He is going to filter in the music and the background vocals. 

“It was actually really cool, and the technical work behind the scenes will actually make me sound like a real recording artist,” he joked. 

In addition to livestreaming events on its website and Facebook, United Hebrew offers other ways to safely connect with each other in person, such as a drive-through Rosh Hashanah in the parking lot. Here, families can stop by to say hello, drop off food donations for charity, pick up a packaged sweet treat, get tashlich materials like water soluble paper to throw in the water, take home a memorial book and even register to vote. And for Simchat Torah, the temple is planning a car hakafah, a “circle around” the building in a joyous celebration. 

So what’s the biggest takeaway of celebrating the Holy Days in a pandemic? 

Rabbi Rosenberg said: “The high holidays are also about change, possibility, introspection, all things this pandemic has caused us to do, and now we’ll continue.”

Faith, food, friendship at Ignite YP’s “Holiday Table” 

The spacious University City backyard of Rabbi Avi Roberts and his wife, Shani, has become a hot spot for young professionals who want to connect with other Jewish peers in the community through lively discussions, timely classes and other programs that can spark a lifelong love of Jewish learning and living.

Rabbi Avi and Shani Roberts

Rabbi Avi and Shani Roberts and their children, Dovi and Michal. Photo: Bill Motchan

As founder of Ignite YP, an outreach program for young professional dedicated to extending exciting Jewish learning opportunities to St. Louisans in their 20s and 30s, the Robertses  have welcomed millennials with open arms into their home (and now their backyard) for Shabbat meals and other holiday events. The couple’s children, Dovi, 4, and Michal, a few months shy of 2, love to kibbitz with the crowd. 

“To our kids, it is like they have many aunts and uncles constantly in their home,” said Rabbi Roberts, who is originally from Cleveland (Shani is a native St. Louisan). “The first week after COVID hit, we were getting ready for Shabbos, and I told Dovi that we needed to set the table: ‘It’s almost Shabbos.’ He looked around confused and asked, ‘But where is everyone?’ To him, Shabbos equals having lots of guests and getting to stay up really late partying with the adults. The children love all the attention they get and really look up to the young professionals, who they call ‘yun-kerfessionals.’ ”

The Robertses missed their “extended family” in the community, and they were determined to find a way to keep the fire lit when it came to celebrating Shabbat and the high holidays, even during a pandemic.

Although Ignite YP’s classes continued via Zoom, Roberts said, “Shani and I felt that the warm and fun sense of community that is normally felt at Ignite was missing. Besides the social events that we host every summer, plus Sukkot, Hanukkah and Purim, the main highlight of Ignite is the Shabbat meals. Almost every week, we have 10 to 15 different young professionals in our home and, every six weeks, we host a full house Shabbat, where 40 to 60 young professionals are invited to join us in our home for an epic Shabbat dinner.” 

Just after Passover, the Robertses started the Shabbat Table.  Rather than experiencing Shabbat at their house, the program helps participants create that experience in their own homes. 

Young professional came together on Thursday nights to experience and learn about the depth of Shabbat. Then each Friday afternoon, Shabbat Table participants would stop by the Robertses’ house and pick up a do-it-yourself Shabbat package, including a full meal with favorite Shabbat foods, as well as challah, grape juice, tea lights, blessing cards and benchers. 

This package also included learning materials about Shabbat and the parsha to help re-create that meaningful Shabbat experience. 

“The highlight for us, was that during a time when everyone was stuck at home, we got to see so many of the young professionals every Friday when they would come and pick up their Shabbat packages,” Roberts said.

In mid-July, they decided to switch from virtual to more in-person programming, while continuing to practice safe social distancing. That’s when the idea of Backyard Chats was born, in which two nights a week, they host a discussion group in their backyard with homemade pre-packaged dinner and drink, limited to five people at a time, who are required to register in advance, wear masks and remain socially distanced. 

For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the High Holiday Table  program will follow the Shabbat Table format, allowing as many people who are interested to participate in a safe way in a Zoom class before the holiday and then pick up a DIY holiday kit to observe the holiday at home. 

The Robertses, who are active members of U. City Shul, consider themselves a religious resource for young professionals of all backgrounds.

“We are happy to find prayer and shofar opportunities for each person to experience the holiday in a way that is meaningful and comfortable for the individual,” Roberts said. 

For more information, visit igniteypstl.org.

Aish turns backyard into bimah with PopUpShul

Aish HaTorah wants to help St. Louis Jewish families who aren’t going to their usual High Holiday services at their synagogues due to the pandemic. 

“Even if your congregation is planning a virtual event, we all know that is simply not the same and will not pack the High Holiday punch that we all look forward to this time of year,” said Mimi David, director of women’s education at Aish St. Louis. “No worries, Aish has you covered.” 

Aish is offering PopUpShul STL, which offers a free kit that prepares families to lead their own meaningful high holiday experience with their loved ones in a safe setting. Included are information packets for adults and children, a yard sign, a Jewish card game to use as a conversation starter and a kosher shofar with lessons on how to blow your own horn. 

David’s husband, Rabbi Yosef David, executive director of Aish St. Louis, said an important part of the program is the host of High Holiday preparation classes available via Zoom in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, taught by the Davids as well Rabbi Shmuel Greenwald, Aish’s director of education. 

davids-and-vonks-4_50302703038_o.jpg

Carter Vonk sounds the shofar as Kimberly Vonk looks on. Rabbi Yosef David of Aish HaTorah met with the family as part of the PopUpShul program. Photo: Bill Motchan

Single mom Kimberly Vonk said PopUpShul is a holiday life saver. 

“Prepandemic, I relied heavily on my community to help make the holidays meaningful for my kids, said Vonk, who lives in University City and has a son, Carter, 11, who has been practicing blowing the shofar. “Now, the pressure is on.I have to be the one to do it all by myself. I am planning to make it as meaningful as possible.” 

Vonk also has a daughter, Kelsey, 26, who has a daughter, Nora, 2. The two will celebrate Rosh Hashanah with another family from Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. 

Vonk said the Aish classes have been a big help in preparing for the holidays. 

Rabbi David said the PopUpShul aims to empower participants to lead their own services and gain a deeper love and appreciation of Judaism.

“This year could be your most meaningful High Holidays ever, because you’re going to have to be part of the service instead of sitting there listening passively to the rabbi or cantor,” he said. “When you have to share the knowledge yourself, the ideas are coming from inside of you, and it will be more meaningful and lead to a more thought-provoking experience that you will want to share with your family, friends, neighbors and community.”

Rabbi David said he plans to have Rosh Hashanah dinner at home with his family (he and Mimi are the parents of seven children ages 7 to 23) and then walk to one of the local synagogues to daven in a mask in a socially distanced setting. 

For more information about PopUpShul, visit popupshulstl.com.

B’nai Amoona works to connect community 

For the Spezia family — Rachel, James and their son Wolfie, 2 — joining the services at Congregation B’nai Amoona via livestream on its website and Facebook is a welcome change of pace. 

rachel-and-wolfie-spezia-2_50299117213_o.jpg

Rachel and Wolfie Spezia take part in B’nai Amoona’s drive-through event in the congregation’s parking lot on Sept. 2. Photo: Bill Motchan

“The virtual services at B’nai Amoona are going to be fantastic,” said Rachel Spezia, who is communications coordinator at the synagogue. “I know that I am easily distracted by things like friends coming into the sanctuary or wondering how my son is doing in the children’s program. I am hoping that I will be able to listen and meditate on the words of our Klei Kodesh even more than usual since I will be viewing from home.

“We are also attending some of the in-person programs, like the young family Rosh Hashanah service in the outdoor pavilion and the drive-in shofar service in the parking lot, which we will love. I am also thrilled that Cantor Sharon Nathanson will lead an instrumental tashlich in the Sukkah Garden, which will allow me to take time for deep reflection and of course, hear our cantor’s beautiful voice live.”

One of her family’s traditions during the High Holidays is visiting her homebound grandmother, but this year it will be limited to a video chat. Spezia, of Hazelwood, said she has also challenged herself to try a few new Rosh Hashanah recipes and safely send samples to her neighbors. 

All in all, Spezia said, she has tried to make the best of these uncertain times.

“The biggest challenge I’ve had during this time is the feeling of being isolated,” she said. “Being part of a community, in particular the Jewish community, has made all the difference. Whether it’s davening during our virtual minyan, listening to a webinar on challah baking or attending a virtual Hebrew class, I get to see familiar faces, talk through my worries and ultimately feel less alone during what can feel like a very lonely time.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham, who joined B’nai Amoona a few months ago after moving here from San Antonio with his wife, Lauren, and three young sons, has helped create innovative programs that will connect the Jewish community in a meaningful and memorable way.

bnai-amoona-drive-thru-4_50299809321_o.jpg

Liessa Alperin and Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham take part in Congregation B’nai Amoona’s drive-thru High Holiday food and activity drive on Sept. 2. Photo: Bill Motchan

“Obviously, we can’t gather altogether in person at shul, but we have found creative ways to still connect even if it’s on a smaller scale,” he said. “One of our big goals was to still find ways to get together social distancing, so people can still feel connection to the shul, instead of at home on their device. 

“Normally, we would have one large tashlich service where about 300 people are squished next to each other hugging and schmoozing by the lake, but that’s not doable in pandemic. So now people can sign up for different time slots, and we will allow smaller groups to gather for tashlich, up to 30 at a time.”

Other changes: Instead of everyone singing as a congregation, an instrumental ensemble will perform spiritual music for tashlich, and Rabbi Neil Rose and his wife, Carol, will lead an outdoor meditation session. 

One of the challenges of attending services online, Abraham said, is keeping one’s frame of mind holy and elevated while in a casual home setting. This is why Abraham helped design a new virtual workshop, Creating Sacred Spaces During the Pandemic, scheduled for Sept. 16 (visit bnaiamoona.com for details). 

“We want to show people how they can make their surroundings feel more holy … while watching the High Holiday services at their kitchen table, dining room or basement,” Abraham said. “We want to encourage people to think outside the box and create a space around them that has room to use a prayer book, where they can move around, pray, and not just sit and watch the screen like a TV show.”