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The pandemic has altered how the Jewish community celebrates Rosh Hashanah, which is normally marked with large feasts with friends, family, apples, and honey. Credit: Hannah Lazar

On a typical Rosh Hashanah, Penn Hillel would be bustling with students who commemorate the holiday through communal prayer services and bountiful meals of traditional Jewish foods. This year, however, feasts and services were held virtually or socially distanced outside.

Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, took place from Friday evening to Sunday night. The holiday marks the start of the Ten Days of Repentance, or Jewish "High Holy Days," which culminate in Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, on Sept. 27. Despite having to adapt Rosh Hashanah celebrations to virtual platforms, students and spiritual leaders said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a greater meaning to the holiday, which signifies a fresh start and new year. 

College senior and Penn Hillel President Shira Silver, who is living off campus in Philadelphia, attended socially distanced prayer services for Rosh Hashanah through the Orthodox Community at Penn. During prayer services, which took place outdoors in front of the Hillel building from Friday to Sunday, chairs were spaced six feet apart, everyone was masked, and no singing was permitted to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

While Silver said she was grateful for the opportunity to pray with her community, not being able to sing  Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night and the traditional Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holiday tunes during in-person services was disappointing.

“For me, the most meaningful part of services has always been the music, and that has been totally eliminated because singing is perceived to be a particularly high COVID threat," Silver said. "But to the extent that it allows people to gather in some way and to feel communal support again in some way, that's been very powerful and very positive.”

Credit: Amelia Sharpe Chabad House at Penn hosted outdoor street shofar services, dinners, and prayer services.

Silver added that she is proud of the Orthodox Community at Penn for making safety a priority during prayer services. Both the Hillel staff and leaders of the Orthodox community worked closely with Penn's Campus Health department to ensure that all gatherings were conducted in accordance with public health guidelines, Silver said.

College senior Yarden Wiesenfeld led the Conservative Jewish Community's High Holiday prayer service over Zoom on Sunday. She said being able to play a larger role in the service despite its virtual setting made Rosh Hashanah more meaningful to her this year.

“Having virtual services and having everyone else muted and only hearing yourself does diminish the meaning of the service, but at the same time, Zoom and other virtual platforms lend themselves to discussion and to seminars and study, so I think there's just a shift in how you make that experience meaningful," Wiesenfeld said.

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah during a pandemic also enabled observant students to become more creative about how they practice the holiday. 

Rabbi Levi Haskelevich of the Perelman Center for Jewish life - Chabad House at Penn said that Chabad hosted outdoor street shofar services at various locations around Penn’s campus, such as the Bio Pond located near 38th Street and Baltimore Avenue and the Children’s Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The shofar is a musical horn that is traditionally sounded on Rosh Hashanah to signify a renewal of the relationship with God, Haskelevich said.

Haskelevich estimates that over 75 Penn graduate and undergraduate students attended the street services. 

In addition, Chabad hosted Rosh Hashanah dinners for Penn undergraduate and graduate students outdoors on Friday and Saturday. To ensure the safety of students partaking in Shabbat dinners and prayer services, Chabad spaced out individual tables underneath a large 40-foot tent behind the Lubavitch house located at 4032 Spruce Street for undergraduate students. Chabad hosted dinners for graduate students at its 4211 Sansom Street location.

One aspect of Rosh Hashanah that remains the same is the delicious food. Traditionally, apples and honey, round challah bread, honey cake, and pomegranates are served on the holiday. Silver said that she and her roommates cooked “pots and pots of food” in preparation for a traditional Rosh Hashanah meal.

“We're making an extra effort this year to highlight traditions we would usually do at home, so the special Rosh Hashanah symbols: the apples and honey, the fish heads, which we are replacing with Scandinavian Swimmers [gummy candies] from Trader Joe's. We're really highlighting the fun parts of the holiday that make it feel at home and make it feel normal.”

Credit: Eliud Vargas Rabbi Gabe Greenberg of Penn Hillel.

Many students and spiritual leaders, including Rabbi Gabe Greenberg of Penn Hillel, said that Rosh Hashanah this year was, in many ways, more personal for students given the uprooting caused by the pandemic.

“I feel like this year Rosh Hashanah is a really important opportunity — emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually — for people to take up a moment of transition. The last Jewish year, or really the last six months, have been so hard and so difficult,” Greenberg said. “We need to be able to pause and just try to say goodbye to as much as we can of the negativity and pain and be re-empowered and re-instilled with energy moving forward.”

Haskelevich added that although Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday, it has more of a “universal tone” because it is not just about a Jewish event in history but rather a celebration of the universe. Haskelevich said that the pandemic is but one example of the teachings of Rosh Hashanah.

“The message of Rosh Hashanah is very much something that COVID has taught us: the power of individual action. We all affect each other, and we're not isolated alone,” Haskelevich said. “One person can change the world. Just as one person can carry a virus across an ocean, one person can carry goodness across the ocean and spread it in a much more powerful way.”

Silver said that the pandemic has been a great opportunity for personal reflection and positivity.

“I think there's something that feels very rewarding about entering into this holiday, knowing that we've overcome so many obstacles and worked so hard to put the pieces together," she said. "I think a lot of people have a lot to be proud of going into the holiday this year.”

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