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Sukkot - Outside In

10/01/2020 03:13:46 PM


Sometimes you have to go outside to re-enter. Sukkot, and the next few weeks of our synagogue’s activities, are both signs of that. The High Holidays are meant to be an emotionally intense time. The focus is very much on introspection, and our physical selves are subordinated to the spiritual task at hand. How can we think about eating when our very souls are at stake? It seems capricious that, just days later, we are refocusing on the physical, building a sukkah and shaking the four species. But that trip outside allows us to re-center ourselves, to make sure that body and soul are strongly connected. Only then do we gradually make our way back inside for Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. 

This spiritual journey provides an apt metaphor for the next few months of our synagogue life. Based on the guidance of our COVID-19 Task Force, High Holiday services were almost entirely virtual, with a few carefully-controlled in-person experiences. We’ve received wonderful informal feedback and will be sending out a survey shortly so we can capture insights that might guide us for future years. As we enter Sukkot, we are now preparing to take that next step, outside.

Our Task Force advised us this week that, though we have not yet officially entered Phase 2 of our Re-Entry Plan, current trends allow us to plan towards that goal with outdoor worship. Based on that guidance and hard logistical work by our Board and staff, we will be testing a return to limited in-person prayer over the next few weeks, beginning with outdoor worship. Our first test will be this Sunday, the second day of Sukkot, with a group of 15 people who had previously volunteered to participate in such an experiment. We have also reviewed and revised our plans for potential in-person worship in the sanctuary, and we are moving closer to that goal as an option as well once we have actually reached Phase 2. We will build on what we learn, working towards the point where we feel comfortable that we can provide a safe and meaningful experience to larger groups, by reservation.  

Of course, the safety of each member of our community remains our highest priority. We are watching closely what we can learn from other congregations in Atlanta and beyond. Just because another congregation has implemented a particular option without incident or that option “feels” safe to the casual observer does not mean that the risk is worth the reward for our community. We will also continue to offer virtual access to services for those who are unable to attend in person.

Sukkot offers two further values that guide us. The first is flexibility in the face of uncertainty. Every year, when we plan for events in the sukkah, we know that weather may scuttle our plans and force a reschedule or a cancellation. Similarly, we understand that at any time, we may need to modify based not just on the weather, but also on the COVID-19 situation. If there is a “third wave” and case numbers rise in our local area or our Jewish community or if we find that those attending are not able to work within safety guidelines, we will scale back our in-person offerings. 

The second Sukkot value is the inclusion of every member of the community. Just as a set of Lulav and Etrog is not complete without all four species fully represented, the entire community must be able to participate. When everyone is online, it is very easy for everyone to be on the same footing. When some are in person and some are online, it is much harder to create that sense of community, and we want to make sure that our offerings do not create a sense of exclusion for any segment of our congregation.

In this time of transition, we can prepare far in advance, but we often can’t commit until the last minute. Based on what we learn this weekend (and weather permitting), we hope to offer a socially-distanced Simchat Torah experience on Sunday, October 11 that will combine the best aspects of our prior High Holiday in-person opportunities. Please look for an email early next week with details and registration links.

The journey from Yom Kippur to Sukkot and beyond brings us outside - outside of our structures, outside of ourselves, so that we can slowly bring ourselves back in. I am excited to be taking the first cautious steps of that journey. Wishing you a meaningful and joyous Sukkot.

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784