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PITTSFIELD — For a holiday that typically is a time for coming together in reflection, an ongoing pandemic presents an unfortunate obstacle.

Jewish leaders in the Berkshires have found new ways to carry on old traditions for the High Holy Days, which began Friday evening with the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Many of the services typically held in synagogues have moved online, and those that are in person will have limited attendance — and, of course, social distancing protocols and mask wearing — for COVID-19 safety reasons.

"They certainly wrote no handbook on how to take a thousands-year-old tradition into something that works virtually," said Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch of Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield.

Temple Anshe Amunim was planning to conduct services virtually Friday evening and Saturday morning, but it also will conduct in-person services Sunday morning outdoors, with attendance limited to 50 people and registration required.

While services might look and feel different, Anshe Amunim seeks to provide "a sense of comfort in the familiar" through liturgy, music and words, Hirsch said.

"Judaism is so much a religion that's about gathering, and equally about holy and sacred place and holy and sacred time," Hirsch said. "Even though we're not going to be in our building together, we're still sanctifying and making the time holy."

Given that the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing, prayers of healing and remembrance also will be elevated in services, Hirsch said.

Chabad of the Berkshires in Pittsfield is holding in-person services Saturday and Sunday capped at 50 attendees, but for those who are homebound, it is delivering meals and special prayer books.

"For those who are not able to go to the synagogue, we're bringing the synagogue to them," said Rabbi Levi Volovik.

Jewish students at Williams College typically kick off Rosh Hashana with a big group dinner, sometimes with as many as 120 people. But, this year, a kosher caterer will be providing boxed meals that students can pick up instead.

Services have moved online, and students designed PowerPoint slides to allow people to follow along without physical prayer books. Some faculty and alumni also plan to attend the virtual services, said Rabbi Seth Wax, the college's Jewish chaplain.

Some students still plan to meet in smaller groups outside the college's Jewish Resource Center, but they will have to split into groups of 10, per the college's restrictions on outdoor gatherings.

"It definitely feels like there's been a loss there, but at the same time it's really great the students have put so much planning into this," Wax said. "We're still getting together — it's just not the same."

Despite the new restrictions on how Rosh Hashana can be observed, there also is much in the holiday that is timely, some said.

"There's a prayer that I'll reference tonight called the hineni," Hirsch said. "It's traditionally offered on the New Year, saying: I'm about to lead my community and my congregation through this transformative and significant time, and I'm human. I'm not God, I'm imperfect and I'm trying my best to make this significant and important time the best that I can."

"That's the whole idea of Rosh Hashana — that this is a time of introspection to think, 'Who am I and what is my purpose in this world?' " Volovik said. "Even during this time of darkness, we should be thinking about how we can be a source of light."

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.


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