News / Socially Distant High Holidays

Socially Distant High Holidays

ParliaMentors / Blog


30 / 09 / 20

Matthew Gold is 23, from South London and was on the ParliaMentors programme in 2018-19. Representing the University of Manchester, his group’s social action project focused on increasing understanding and empathy surrounding the Brexit debate in the local community. He has recently volunteered for the Organisation for World Peace as a correspondent and has just begun a master’s in Public Policy at King’s College London.


As I was making the short drive to my local synagogue in Sutton, South London to pick up three ‘Covid care packages (one for my family, one for my grandma and one for my great uncle) I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed for the umpteenth time of how weird a year it’s really been so far. The care packages are part of a national effort by synagogues to help community members have some access to resources needed to help celebrate the ‘High Holidays’ (the festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur collectively). I was greeted by a mask-clad rabbi and two other members of the synagogue who were helping distribute these packages in a manner not unlike how you would get a drive through coffee; I said hello, we had a quick life update and mused about the unprecedented nature of it all and then I was away – almost as soon as I came in, not wishing to extend a social interaction unnecessarily.  

This is quite a deviation from the normal experience of these two festivals, which collectively are the most important dates in a Jewish calendar typically. Rosh Hashanah marks the Jewish new year – an opportunity to reflect on the year just past and to practice the three pillars of the festival; to pray, repent and give to charity. Sweet food, to mark a sweet new year, are often consumed in the form of apple and honey or honey cake.  Yom Kippur is a day of repentance, when Jews are said to be closest to God. Aside from prayer, it is also marked by a day-long fast. Both festivals also see the shofar blown and, in my 23 year experience, are both also marked by very long days spent inside the synagogue! 

This year however, a long day in synagogue is not an option. The health concerns are obvious and avoiding large crowds is an unfortunate reality of our times. Instead we had a much more intimate, close knit family festival marked with increased informality in how we followed usual proceedings. We did not spend hours praying at home but rather we made sure that we selected the most important prayers, we set our table in a white tablecloth (the traditional colour for the season), lit candles and enjoyed the customary meal and traditional foods as a family.  

The contents of the synagogue’s covid care package, laid out. Prayer books, key readings, some reflections from notable rabbis, a rounded chollah, pomegranate, grape juice, an apple, honey, dates, a candle and honey cake.

Enquiring if such disruption had befallen our community in recent memory, I spoke to my 88 year old grandma to see if she recalled anything like this. She remembered turbulent times during the years of her evacuation as a child during WWII, where maintaining the usual traditions was near impossible. She mentioned that alongside not being able to go to synagogue this year, what she missed was the in person community spiritTherefore, to continue to feel connected, she was playing her part in the community as best she could by phoning to wish a ‘Shana Tova’ (sweet new year) to as many people as she could. Adapting to our current reality, for all of us, might mean finding reflection, community or tradition in totally new ways such as this.  

Indeed, adapting to the times has always been a part of Judaism. From country to country Judaism isn’t experienced uniformly, and here in the UK there are many strands of Judaism – Orthodox, liberal, reform – that make a vibrant web of different customs and practices. I’ve always reflected that the most important aspect for me was the culture and knowing about my roots. In many ways, wearing a mask and getting a drive-through honey cake is making this one of the most memorable festive periods ever. Even though it’s a difficult time for everyone, I’m hopeful that as a community we now all have a stronger collective experience of the many weird ways that our religion and culture has adapted yet again

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