A Guide to High Holidays in Pandemic Times

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Note: This guide was written for 2020/5780-81. It still has much wisdom to offer, and the dates have been changed for this year.

5780 has been wrought with profound change, loss, upheaval, disorientation, hope, resistance, and resilience. Many of us find ourselves at sea, overwhelmed and longing for connection. In this time of social, racial, and economic uprising, of global pandemic, how do we engage with the beautiful, ancestrally-guided work we are called to do? This year, we are charged with reimagining how we do High Holy Days. This year we wade in unchartered waters. How might the Days of Awe serve this moment, and how might this moment serve the Days of Awe?  

As we spin into Elul, the month before the turning of the year, we begin our personal and collective process of deep reflection and accountability that shepherds us into the new year. Our new year begins with ten days of ritual and practices in which we mourn, we fast, we pray, we consent to facing and feeling the vulnerability and precarity of being human. We dress in a shroud, we prostrate ourselves, we practice our own death and pray to be reborn as who we know we really are. This year, we are already in the depths, we are already in precarity. For many of us, it feels as if it has been Yom Kippur for months.

For those of us who usually find ourselves in synagogue or gathering with Jewish community during the Days of Awe, this year will look and feel very different. Our rabbis and Jewish clergy are staying up all night trying to figure out how to weave spaces to hold people with meaning and connection online. For thousands of years, our traditions have moved us to gather together in sanctuary spaces, to make temples of time, to do this work collectively, with our bodies near to one another, singing and wailing and knocking at our hearts in chorus. There is great loss here. And there is also an opportunity for collective innovation as we weave new traditions out of the ancient. 

What if this time around, we are being offered the extraordinary opportunity to dream up our own Days of Awe, to answer what this present moment asks of us? Perhaps this year, we draw upon Jewish traditions of centering our practices in our homes and connecting with the essence of these days in our own way, inviting us into a new kind of intimacy and depth. Perhaps the sacred work this year involves hearing the calls for reparations, the call to dismantle white supremacy, ableism, transphobia, classism, anti-Black racism in Jewish communities and beyond, the call to tend to our most vulnerable siblings, the call to invest in community care and mutual aid, the call to slow down, the call for indigenous land sovereignty and wise care of our earth

One of my beloved teachers Joanna Macy calls this time of profound transformation and loss “The Great Turning,” and also names the shadow process, “The Great Unraveling.” As the monuments to white supremacy are being toppled and, may it be so, we continue to dissolve and burn and dismantle oppressive structures, we are also called to dismantle our own internal harmful patterns. We are also being unraveled. Who among us has not felt undone, disassembled, like we are falling apart, during the past year? Who among us has not been called in, called out, asked to do better, to know better, engaged in a repair process, lost loved ones, lost relationships, lost our homes, lost our incomes, had shortness of breath, a pounding heart, been shaken to the core? 

This is the work we are instructed to do in Elul and in the ten Days of Awe. Our ancestors prepared this for us: they offered rituals, practices, and prayers to go deep, to renew our hearts, to invoke sweetness, to turn ourselves inside out, to get quiet enough to listen to the collective call for justice. How can we work with the gifts of this season that they have imparted to us: tefilla (prayer), teshuvah (returning to ourselves), and tzedakah (reparations) for the sake of collective liberation and healing? 

Much of our tradition and faith have been born out of exile, isolation, fear, longing, and loss. We are not new to innovation. We offer this guide as a kind of ‘choose your own adventure’ — discern what will be most generative for you in this season as you glance through our suggestions for this temporal journey.  We hope these practices will be supportive for you as you weave the container you need for this season. It’s impossible to write something for everyone and attempt to meet the needs of all of our communities, from frum folks who are figuring out a new world of using screens on chaggim to people who are just reconnecting with Judaism and can easily feel alienated by Hebrew words and phrases. We hope that there is even one gem in here that inspires you – use what resonates and compost the rest.
Movement elders remind us that liberation is not a destination, but a process, and the fleeting moments in which we taste just a drop of liberation on our tongues is liberation. And so it is with Teshuvah – we pray to make fertile ground for sweet moments of connection, liberation, and healing. May we meet this moment well, and may we have what we need to show up and allow it to change us, to turn us, and to return us.

DAYENU: Remember we already have what we need 

Before we dive into this river of suggested practices, we invite you take a breath and approach these offerings with curiosity. Capitalism and systems of supremacy tell us we don’t have enough, we aren’t enough, and we’ll never know or do enough, so remembering that we have everything we need is a kind of resistance and magic. Isolation, uncertainty, and change may bring up old stories and fears:  Who are my people? Where do I belong? Do I belong? I’m doing it wrong. Everyone knows more than me. Everyone else is doing it wrong! You get the picture. Greet them, notice them, and do as our people do with demons: offer them some honey, burn some cloves, chase them away with garlic, psalms, and a bell. The demon slaying technique may be different depending on where your people are from, but the point is, recognize those demons and don’t let them ride you or throw you off. This year, we embrace curiosity:  what might emerge this year only because we are so far out of familiar frameworks?  

There is very little we need to make up or invent to observe this sacred time. Even the modern wonders of Zoom and electric connection already exist!  Our ancient ancestors crafted and preserved traditions for us, and our recent wise ones have gifted us with radically inclusive, updated liturgy and rituals.  Those of us who are disabled and chronically ill have been navigating access, practicing mutual aid, and innovating access wisdom for ages. Those of us who are queer, trans, non-binary, those of us who dance between worlds, who laugh in the face of the binary, who dream and live lives we were told were impossible; we know how to dream new structures into being. Those of us who are Black, Indigenous, Jews of Color, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, those of us who have danced on the margins, straddled worlds, spoken in many languages, who have been carving our own sacred spaces and find home in and with one another forever; we know how to transform and heal. We have so many resources and so much wisdom. Let us remember what we know, and cultivate a sense of enoughness that can buoy us through these tumultuous waters. To borrow a phrase from the “other new year,” Passover, “Dayenu.”  Let it be enough.

ELUL: Practice waking up

Rosh Chodesh Elul/the first day of the Jewish month of Elul marks exactly 40 days until Yom Kippur. On this day, we hear the blast of the shofar for the first time this season, and we are guided to hear the shofar every day of Elul to awaken our souls for the work of the High Holy Days. The letters of the word ‘Elul’ – aleph, lamed, vav, lamed– can be understood as an acronym of “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” from the Song of Songs. This is a month in which we are beckoned into love, precisely so we may soften our husks and hearts and hold ourselves and each other with gentleness, reminding us that accountability can be an act of love. Chasidic teachers name Elul as an et ratzon, a time of willingness. Let this month be a month where we say yes, offer enthusiastic consent, and engage our muscles for the love and justice work ahead. 

Suggested practices for Elul: 

Honor the dead ~ It is customary to visit the graves of your beloved dead during the month of Elul. Since many of us cannot physically do that, find other ways to connect with those who have transitioned beyond. Perhaps you can create a space in your home to put up photos or special objects that remind you of your beloved dead, which you can keep up through Sukkot. You may also want to find an outdoor space you can visit and bring a stone each time, as if you were visiting a grave. 

There is an Ashkenazi tradition of making Soul Candles for the Days of Awe in which people walk and measure the length of wick around the graves of their dead and make candles from those wicks. Our friend Jonah Aline Daniel of Narrow Bridge Candles offers a Soul Candles Ritual Kit.

An old black and white image of people holding string and walking around a cemetery

Recite Psalm 27 ~ We are guided to recite Psalm 27 every day in Elul. This Psalm is an anchor and guiding light, a remedy for fear, and a daily practice as we train for the intense spiritual Olympics that are the Days of Awe. The Psalm begins, “God is my light and my life; whom shall I fear? God is the foundation of my life; whom shall I dread?” 

In this Psalm, we ask to dwell in the house of the Divine, we ask for shelter, we ask to remember that we are always living in G-d’s house. This is also a time to connect with our sacred purpose, what we are here to do, especially in these urgent times. A few years ago, I took on this piece of a poem by adrienne maree brown as my daily Psalm 27 practice, and offer it you as a possibility for the month of Elul: 

 i am not afraid

 of what i came here to do

 i’m made of stardust

 we are not afraid

 of what we’re called now to do

 we’re all made of god

Sound the Shofar ~ As we are instructed to hear the call of the shofar daily, you can trust that there will be many daily shofar offerings online (including this daily morning Elul offering from our friends at Fringes), or perhaps there will be local opportunities for you to hear it in person. If you don’t have access to blow or hear the shofar, what sound can be your daily shofar? One year, I took on the practice of listening to Democracy Now! as a daily shofar blast. You can enlist any sound as your shofar call: birdsong, a kazoo or horn, a passing train or subway, your alarm clock, the sound of the spoon clinking your cup as you stir your morning beverage, your kids’ laughter. Take a moment to “listen” to something each day and ask yourself, “What is this calling me to awaken to?” 

Begin to Return / Return again ~ Elul is the month we dive into our Teshuvah work, our work of individual and collective reflection and accountability. In a time of great unraveling, a time in which more harms are being revealed and more people are awakening to the possibilities of repair, this work has never felt more relevant or poignant. Teshuvah (literally to turn, or re-turn) is radical transformation work.  Unlike secular practices of New Year Resolutions, which often serve systems of oppression in the name of “self-improvement” by making us feel inadequate, teshuvah is about bringing oneself into alignment in service of collective healing and transformation. We lovingly look at the ways in which we messed up this year, ways in which we perpetuate harms, our own hurt places that need tending, and out of whack places in our lives that need a spiritual adjustment. If you are in any kind of 12 step program, mazel tov, this will feel very familiar. In the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, God sends mystical beings running and returning, saying “Teshuv haMakom” / “return to the Place”, the Place being God itself. This place we can understand to be Home, and this Home we can understand to be ourselves in our most humble, honest, glorious forms.  

The first step is to recognize your missteps with love and acknowledge them. You can do this in writing or in chevruta – talking to a friend.  Begin with the most intimate relationship, yourself, and move in ever widening circles, taking stock of your intimate relationships, work relationships, your relationship to communities you are connected to, ways in which you are complicit in oppression in both personal and more systemic ways, and in a kind of full circle, looking at your relationship to G-d/ess/exx/HaShem. Then, move from witnessing to actually allowing yourself to feel the impact. It’s not like “feel some feelings” is on your to do list. Create dedicated space for what some people might call “healthy shame”, like what is required for us to feel when we really f— up?  Don’t get stuck there, visit that land of rich soil that is made being burnt the ground for the time that is required and then know when it is time to act. You are ready. Air it out, own it, take responsibility with witnesses who can hold you in accountability.  And from this raw and tender place, you can begin to make steps towards repair.

There is an abundance of resources online about teshuvah, including Teshuvah guides, Teshuvah writing prompts,  meditations, poetry and practices. You can find some below in the resources section. (If you search teshuvah online, content warning: you will definitely encounter the word “sin”. You can thank Christian hegemony for that and kindly replace it with the term “missing the mark”. 

Commit to Noticing ~ Elul invites us to turn our attention inward, not for the sake of self-improvement, but so that we can begin to see the unconscious patterns and behaviors that shape our lives and our resulting ripple in the ocean of life.  One way to do this work is to commit to a practice of noticing. This can be done either by choosing one area of our lives to focus on and take note of, for as our teacher Taya Ma says, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” The invitation is to take daily note of your relationship to walking your dog, or brushing your teeth, or putting your kids to bed, or making love, or making breakfast (etc.) and be available for what is revealed to you. Or, one can take up a practice of choosing one seemingly random task to do everyday at the same time. Elan/a’s teacher Dorit Winter instructs that if one wants to change their entire life, one should start by turning their ring or tugging their earlobe or touching their toes or (insert any other random gesture here) at the same time every day. Simply by tuning into what time it is, by tugging ones earlobe or turning one’s ring, and by noticing what comes up when we forget or when we remember, we prime our consciousness to see ourselves clearly with love, which supports us in becoming who we know we really are. 

a color image of beeswax candles and honey

MAKOM KADOSH:  Create sacred space at home, or wherever you are

Home as a Heart of Jewish Practice ~  While there are some who believe that the center of Judaism has historically been the Temple and that the conception of the home as a center of Jewish tradition is a modern invention, some of us might respond, “That depends on who you ask” or, “So what was my kitchen, then?”  Where were those of us who weren’t in the room when the books were written, who weren’t allowed in the Beit Midrash, where were those of us who were exiled, fleeing, imprisoned, raising children, nourishing our communities, those of us who were healing the sick, those of us who were wandering? We have innovated so many home-based practices that have sustained us- from kissing the mezuzah at the doorway to epic Passover seders to whispering prayers into braids of challah to opening our doors to the Sabbath Queen/Quing on Friday evening. In these moments, we priest/ess/xx our own connection to holiness and our homes become sanctuary.  This year, in the absence of the physical temple, we are invited to conceive of a temple wherever we are. We are tasked with making our homes a Makom Kadosh– a holy space, and becoming temple keepers ourselves. We can ask: what is the essence of these holy days and how can I make this space and time a place to explore and honor that essence?  Where will you place yourself for meals, self-guided rituals, services? Where do you want to do your Teshuvah work? What space in your home is ready to be transformed into a sanctuary? Consider: Your bed! Your bathtub! A spot on your floor! Finding a place outside that you visit often! A couch fort! 

Mikdash m’at ~ Choose a space in your home to be your mikdash m’at, a miniature sanctuary, a holy place, opening to the possibilities of the temple in your home. Make it beautiful. If you haven’t read the passage in the Torah where we are given instructions to build the Tabernacle, let us share (as Femme Queens under the influence of Libra) that it is magnificently decadent and lush: cedar and lapis and copper and crimson and shimmering unicorn skin. While that may not be your style, dedicate some time to making a space for G-d/dess to dwell in with you.  

Suggestions for creating your tiny sanctuary: 

  • Make an altar (see below)
  • Gather books that are meaningful to you (a machzor, books about spirituality and the high holy days, poetry books, your journal, books and zines about transformative justice and healing) 
  • Place a Shviti on your wall: A Shviti is a decorative piece of calligraphy found hanging in many synagogues.  “Shviti” is the first Hebrew word of the verse, “I always set ADONAI before me” (Psalm 16:8).  Typically, this sacred adornment included this verse written out in large letters along with other devotional verses in Hebrew or English including “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” and, “May this space be a sanctuary.” You can make your own Shviti or find one to download and print or buy prints online.  
A black and white drawing of an arrow pointing up to flames and down to roots.  The arrow is surrounded by block-style etching of a sun on each side.  Overlayed on top of the arrow are the Hebrew letters yod, hey, vav, hey. There are also the words  I am holy, all is clear, you are loved, it is perfect.

*Shviti by Morty Breier

Every Land is the Holy Land ~ Connecting to the land that we make home and ritual on is complicated, painful, and charged as Jewish people who are scattered like seeds across the earth. For those of us who are not indigenous to this land known as the United States,  many of our ancestors came to Turtle Island as refugees, as settlers, as people who were stolen from homelands and brought here by enslavers, as Jews of mixed heritage, Black Jews and Jews of Color, as non-Zionist Jews who organize around ending occupation everywhere. Some of us came here as immigrants ourselves.  We can honor the land we are on by learning about and naming the tribes whose land we are on, make tzedakah (donations/reparations) to Native Land Tax funds or BIPOC land projects, and acknowledge that for hundreds of years, Native peoples have suffered and survived forced assimilation, mass incarceration, and genocidal policies of conquest. In communities I am a part of, we sing a chant that goes, “Every land is the Holy Land” (based on an Ursula LeGuin poem, from a saying by Black Elk, melody by Camille Robertson) to widen and deepen the liturgy that orients us to one Holy Land. Ohlone elder, Corrina Gould, teaches us: “I believe that no matter where you come from, you have a responsibility to know where you stand. People need to know that there was a people who lived there before they did. They need to consider, then, what’s their responsibility to the land, to each other, and to the First Nations people who come from there.” In this piece about complicating ideas of decolonizing Jewish tradition and earth -based Judaism, Gabi Kirk asks, “How can we imagine relationships of “belonging to the land” instead of “the land belongs to me” that are rooted in our own traditions and communities, without appropriating or romanticizing?”  In a time in which we cannot gather in synagogues, we can re-enliven Jewish traditions that deepen intimacy with soil, trees, stones, our gardens, city parks, even the dandelion that sprouts from the sidewalk, like the Chasidic practice of Hisbodedut, a personal prayer practice, best done in the forests or fields. This practice comes to us through Rebbe Nachman of Breslov who said, “When a person meditates in the fields, all the grasses join in their prayer and increase its effectiveness and power.” This year, while we may go outside to find sanctuary everywhere, take high holy day hikes, immerse ourselves in rivers, lean our backs against trees, pray in the forests and fields, we are also asked to hold the questions of what “connecting with the land” as settlers on holy ground means, and integrate the work of Teshuvah (reflection/accounting) and Tzedakah (reparations) into this Tefilla (prayer) work. 

Your Body is a Living Temple~ If you want to dive into some mind blowing talmud/quantum physics this season, you can study Midrash Tanchuma, which has inspired some scholars to make the beautiful connection that our bodies are temples in a wondrous formula that equates the torah, the tabernacle, the temple, and our bodies.  Divrei Beit Hillel comments, “On another level, the Mishkan (temple) symbolizes the human body. The beams which comprise the sides of the Mishkan symbolize the ribs. The goat-skin curtains represent the skin. The menorah symbolizes the mind. The k’ruvim (cherubim) symbolize the lungs, which lie over the heart, and the aron hakodesh (the holy ark) represents the heart.” In that spirit, how will you tend to your body in these days and what does your body want to do for the High Holy Days? 

Some suggested practices:

  • Mikveh~  honor transitions and invoke transformation in a ritual immersion (Queer Mikveh Project will be offering an virtual mikveh you can join from anywhere, including your bathtub or sink!)
  • Sweetness ~ the traditional Hebrew greeting for the new year is “Shana tova umetukah!” and in Ladino, “Anyada buena i dulce!” : a good and sweet year! We don’t just want a good year, we want a year that is dripping with honey. We eat spiral challah, twisted with plump raisins, we pop pomegranate seeds into our mouth, and eat pastries doused in honey and rosewater. In Sephardi and Mizrahi tradition, we hold a seder on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, in which we eat symbolic foods for a delicious year, weaving a spell for a year full of pleasure and delight with each bite. We need to sweeten these hard times! It’s as if we are calling to the sweetness in ourselves, feeding our best selves with the golden nectar of the bees. Consider incorporating more sweetness into your days of awe- a ritual lick of a spoonful of honey each morning? Taking on a daily pleasure practice? How you can bring more sweetness into this time, into your year? (Dori will be teaching a class on honey magic for the Days of Awe in September- more info coming soon!)
  • Wrap yourself ~ consider wrapping yourself in a tallit, a beautiful scarf or other special piece of fabric when you sit down at your altar or to write, pray, or attend services. Some teachers consider the tallit a symbol of the wings of the Shekhinah, the Indwelling Presence of the Divine, a cloak of protection and light.  (check out this new podcast, Fringes, about trans and gender non-conforming Jews and our relationships to tallitot and tzitzit.)
  • Dress yourself like you are an altar~ choose colors and fabrics and accessories that connect you to your high holy day intentions, dress up or down for HaShem/G-d/dexx, clothe yourself as simple or as fancy as you are moved.  Dressing up even if you are staying home is an incredible vehicle for transporting yourself to the state of being you wish to occupy (#femmewisdom).  And remember, THIS is the year you can accessorize sans pants, if that is your preferred way to pray. 
  • Anoint with oil ~ This practice is edge play for many people, but if you’re into it, take on studying anointing practices in temple times and create your own infused olive oil blend to use in ritual.  
  • Music ~ sometimes just surrounding ourselves with the songs and liturgy of the season while cooking, working, hanging out with our kids can help us connect more deeply and create a sacred space. And dance if you feel like it!  

Some playlists: 

Nishmat Shoom Days of Awe 

Kol Tzedek Days of Awe

New Synagogue Project Wading Deeper 

Make an Altar ~ Witchy queer Jews have basically been waiting all our lives for this moment: suddenly Rabbis across the country are suggesting people build altars in their homes. This is not new! Jewish people have been building altars for thousands of years! Before the Temple, the ancient Israelites made altars in their homes, often in the kitchen, as a place for burnt offerings and stones. Our Shabbat table and Seder plate can be seen as a kind of altar.  An altar is simply a table set to meet the Divine, a physical space that holds our intentions and prayers. As such, it can be sparse, or decadently full. An altar can sprout from virtually anywhere:  a window sill, the center of your kitchen table, a crate in your bedroom, the top of your dresser, a moving box flipped over with a tablecloth on top.  If you are in housing transition, you can make a small portable box, remembering our ancestors who wandered, innovating this tradition of mobile prayer. 

Consider your kavannah (intentions) for the High Holy Days. How can your altar be a visual representation, a physical anchor for your intention? You can think about this as you choose the color of the cloth and which symbols you place on your altar. Working with strengthening your intuition? Add water. Doing deep work on your own patterns? How about a mirror and a photo of yourself as a child? Cultivating more protection? A small knife, black stones, garlic and rue. Trying to open and soften? A bowl of rose petals, some orange blossom water, a stuffed animal. Wanting more connection with your ancestors? An empty bowl or vessel, rosemary, stones from your walks. 

Other objects to add to your altar: symbols of intentions, family heirlooms, water in a small bottle from bodies of water you are connected to, stones and plants, tinctures or medicines you are supported by, handwritten notes, special ritual items- tefillin, a machzor, havdalah candle, a kiddush cup with infused wine, a small jar of honey, apples, pomegranates, and dates. You might take some time to change or tend to your altar daily, weekly, or by the moon/month. 

You might also consider making an altar space somewhere outside. If you have access to a porch, balcony, garden, or a public space like a park or walking trail, you can create an altar you visit and tend each day, and if you are moved to, invite others to visit. This year, Nishmat Shoom, the ritual project I am part of, is inviting our community to create and tend to public altar spaces for people to visit during the ten Days of Awe. The invitation is to create an altar connected to a theme (like collective grief, teshuvah, BIPOC-led movements, sweetness) and tend to it daily. We will be sending out directions to these community-held sacred spaces, with explicit directions that people not gather in large groups there, but visit solo or with a chevruta (prayer comrade).

Create Rhythm in a Time Out of Rhythm ~ Jews have a blessing for practically everything. Rituals support us in transitions, whether they are the transition from the old year into the new, or daily transitions from day into evening, sleep into waking, Shabbat into the weekday. Think about how you want to hold the transition from daily home space into ritual space and if you are choosing to tune into virtual services online, how to transition your computer that you use for work and play into your virtual sanctuary for services and prayer.

Some Jewish traditions to draw upon:

  • Burn some cedar. Ancient Israelite Priestexxes offered cedar smoke at the entrance to the Temple for cleansing. Burn some cedar. Ancient Israelite Priestexxes offered cedar smoke at the entrance to the Temple for cleansing. Cedar is a tall, magnificent coniferous tree that has long been held sacred for its medicinal, magical, and spiritual properties in Jewish tradition. Cedar is mentioned over 70 times in the Tanakh. It is said that King Solomon used Cedar for the roof beams and paneling in both the temple and his palace, as well as the altar in the Ark of the Covenant. Cedar is resinous and aromatic, it resists rots and insects, making it ideal for holding sacred space. Cedar helps build an energetic architecture of protection and clearing.
  • Incorporate Havdalah rituals for transitional moments: light a candle, inhale the scent of spices, sprinkle some rosewater on yourself, and say the last line of the Havdalah blessing before opening or closing, entering or leaving your sacred space: 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, הַמַבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל

Baruch ata Adonai/at Yah/B’rucha at Shekhinah 

 hamavdil/ah bayn kodesh lechol. 

Blessed are You, Indwelling One,  who gives us the gift of pausing in the flow of time to name holiness. 

Creating a Road Map for the Days of Awe: Envisioning Our Practice in Time & Space 

With so many possibilities of practices and an abundance of online offerings, it can feel overwhelming to figure out what to do. When we let go of trying to make it feel normal, there is some relief. As someone who has been practicing healing work for 20 years, my intention when I work with someone is never to try to reach or preserve a state of normalcy or stasis. Healing is not about things not feeling hard, because healing and transformation is hard; creating a clear intention and moving towards that is helpful: What’s going to make me feel most alive? What’s going to rock me in gentleness? What’s going to help me feel more connected? What’s going to give me a feeling of rigor and structure, or bring more pleasure and ease? Also, let’s let go of “shoulds”- we don’t have to do anything, or everything, and nobody is grading us. (I recognize that the whole holy day liturgy is about being judged by G-d so we get written in the book of life, but I choose to do a major re-frame about that- another article.) So, what will we do with these days? How do we balance the desire to connect with the aversion to the screen? What if virtual services don’t do it for us? What if we are working or parenting or caring for a sick loved one or in housing transition? 

If you are considering attending online services for the High Holy Days but don’t attend services regularly, you may want to try out some online offerings in Elul from different communities to get a feel for the leadership and community. See here for links to communities we love. 

Below are some writing/thinking/discussing prompts to help generate some clarity about what to do:

  • What do I want to the High Holidays to feel like, smell like, taste like, sound like? How do I want to feel? 
  • How can I make space for the grief and loss of what was?
  • If I could dream up a whole new way to experience the High Holy Days, what would I dream up? 
  • What are my intentions/kavannah for 5781? what have been the themes of 5780? What am I letting go of? What do I want to bring int? 
  • What are a few pieces of liturgy, songs, traditions that feel essential to my high holy day experience?
  • What are some things I want to do : (write or chevruta/talk with a friend about this)
    • Attend virtual services (alone or make a plan with others to do together, check in before and after, which services – have links ready to go) which communities am i connected to? Excited to connect to? (see links for offerings below)
    • Listen to recorded songs, prayers and rituals I do on my own time
    • Engage with ritual guides
    • Spend time in silence
    • Listen to guided meditations
    • Unstructured sacred time (with journal, books, art supplies)
    • Connecting with others (facetime, phone, distance walks, pod)
    • Napping and resting
    • Writing teshuvah letters to self and others
    • Protesting, engaging in Justice/Tikkun Olam work 
    • Spend time in nature
    • Reading, studying and learning more 
    • Accountability/transformative justice practices
    • Eating special ritual foods 
    • Inviting children into traditions and practices
  • What supports do I need to make this happen?
    • Taking time off work
    • If I am working, finding ways to stay connected to my intentions
    • Email auto-response/tech break/social media fast
    • Sharing intentions with friend/accountability buddy
    • Getting childcare (as a parent of a 5 year old during a pandemic, I’m laughing with you at this statement which feels basically impossible right now, but I had to write it because miracles can happen)
    • Research as spiritual practice, diving into more learning about traditions I’m curious about

List of High Holy Day Rituals/Observances w/ Dates

(You can always choose different dates to observe if needed)

Month of Elul August 9th – September 6th/ 1 – 29 Elul 
SelichotVarying traditions of when, daily during Elul in Sephardi/Mizrahi tradition, sometimes a Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah in Ashkenazic tradition (August 28, this year), or some time before Rosh Hashanah.
Erev Rosh Hashanah – SederAnytime between evening of Sunday September 5th – evening of Monday September 6th/29 Elul 
Erev Rosh Hashanah – ServicesEvening, Monday September 6th/ 1 Tishrei
Rosh Hashanah Services – Day 1Tuesday September 7th/ 1 Tishrei
Rosh Hashanah Services – Day 2Wednesday September 8th/ 2 Tishrei
MikvehCustomary to immerse in a mikveh (ritual immersion in water) before Rosh Hashanah and/or Yom Kippur
TashlichCustomary on Rosh Hashanah, but can be done until the end of Sukkot (Sept. 27th)
10 Days PracticesSeptember 7th – September 16th/ 1 Tishrei – 10 Tishrei 
Shabbat T’shuvahThe Shabbat btw. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Friday Sept. 10th – Saturday Sept. 11th/ 5 Tishrei 
Havdalah Evening Saturday, September 11th/ 6 Tishrei 
Kol NidreEvening Wednesday Sept. 15th/ 9-10 Tishrei 
Yom Kippur DayThursday, Sept. 16th/10 Tishrei
Yom  Kippur – Yizkor ServiceThursday, Sept. 16th/10 Tishrei
Yom  Kippur – Musaf ServiceThursday, Sept. 16th/10 Tishrei
Yom  Kippur – Neilah ServiceThursday, Sept. 16th/10 Tishrei
Yom Kippur- Break FastThursday, Sept. 16th/11 Tishrei
SukkotEvening of Monday, September 20th – Evening of Monday, September 27th /15 Tishrei – 21 Tishrei 

Creating a Road Map to the Days of Awe Planning Worksheet— Download the file at the top of this page for a printable version of this guide and the worksheet.


Rosh Hashanah Seder by Rahel Muselah 

Azazel: a guide for earth based Yom Kippur practices from Shamir Collective

Elul Unbound

The Jewish Case for Indigenous Solidarity by Jay Saper 

Social Justice Warrior’s Guide to the High Holy Days by Dane Kuttler

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew

Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians by Atalia Omer

The Days Between by Marcia Falk

Brene Brown podcast on how to apologize


See these lists of services offered by communities:

Link to Jewish Voice for Peace list

Link to Nishmat Shoom list 

Shared with love by Dori Midnight, in collaboration with Elan/a June Margolis, Annie-Rose London and contributing editors, Rae Abileah and Morgan Bassichis.
If you are moved to express gratitude for this piece with money, please consider donating to the  Trans Asylum Seekers Support Network or the Mizrahi Solidarity Fund.