Whether they’re called “hybrid,” “multiple access,” “mixed prayer” or another term, chances are your High Holiday services in the Greater Boston area will have a different look again this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the second consecutive year, coronavirus best practices are prompting many synagogues to restructure things by including at least some sort of virtual component for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Overall, High Holiday services are headed in a unique direction—part virtual, part in-person—instead of the previously uncharted waters of entirely virtual for many congregations last year.

“This will be a new way for the congregation, as it will be for me,” said Rabbi Keith Stern of Temple Beth Avodah in Newton. “Two places at once to be in together.”

Temple Beth Avodah will hold a mix of in-person services in the sanctuary and, for families with young children who cannot be vaccinated, outdoors, weather permitting. The services will also be filmed live for online viewing. Last year, services were entirely online.

This year’s High Holiday services were initially restricted to members only, but after discussion, the temple is allowing members to bring guests.

“I would say, with some small variations, everybody seems to be all-in with a combination of online and in-house worship, in-house with masks,” Stern said.

Some of the variations include whether congregations require that attendees be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I do have colleagues who require vaccinations for entrance,” Stern said. “We haven’t asked it specifically,” instead requiring attendees to wear masks.

Rabbi Liza Stern of Congregation Eitz Chayim of Cambridge said that concerns over COVID-19 led her congregation to plan almost everything on Zoom for the High Holidays, save for an in-person, outdoor children’s service and in-person Yizkor and Neilah services.
“I didn’t want people to be distracted during services, worrying whether the person sitting next to them was vaccinated,” said Stern, who is married to Rabbi Keith Stern. “I just thought the holidays are a time to think about other things.”
She said she talks about COVID planning for the High Holidays with her husband and “all of my friends in the rabbinate; we all talk about it. A lot depends on your physical space. Our sanctuary, on the holidays, is very, very crowded. It was not feasible to do it in our space.”

At The Boston Synagogue, in-person attendees of this year’s hybrid services must be vaccinated as well as wear a mask, showing proof of vaccination when they register, including children over 12 years old. The synagogue website includes information on membership and self-seats for the High Holidays. There are membership categories for families and individuals, as well as for students.

Temple Beth Zion in Brookline requires that everyone physically attending its multiple access services over 12 be fully vaccinated except those who have a medical exception.

This does not apply to “people who can be vaccinated but choose not [to],” said Rabbi Claudia Kreiman. “Of course, everybody needs to wear their mask fully over their mouth and nose at all times.”

Registration was open to members only for a week before it opened up to non-members as well.

The mood across the area had been trending more hopeful before news of the Delta variant, which is attributed to breakthrough infections, including in Provincetown earlier this summer.

“One month before the Delta variant, we thought we could have many more people on the High Holidays,” Kreiman said. “We were starting conversations about people who were vaccinated [being] allowed to be without masks. All of that fully changed the week [of Delta]. News of the Delta variant continues. We are being cautious.”


Rahel Gruenberg, community engagement manager at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, said the Delta variant did not change the temple’s plans for a multiple-access High Holidays that it had made in the spring.

“We started making our plans [incorporating] the ability to meet the needs of the most vulnerable part of our population,” including people who could not be vaccinated or for whom it might have less effect than others, Gruenberg said. “They could rejoin us in the sanctuary.”

“We didn’t change our plans,” she added. “We felt that we had been more conscientious than most in our planning and able to stay the course, even with the Delta variant.”

The temple is having both in-person and virtual services open to both members and non-members. Those who come in-person must wear a mask regardless of vaccination status, with vaccination requested but not required.

However, Gruenberg said, “On the day-of, we ask anybody not feeling well to stay home and participate virtually.”

“Generally speaking, we’ve been very blessed to have fared well,” she said. “I think this has been a really challenging time for all of us, collectively, in terms of the pandemic.”

Rabbi David Curiel of Asiyah, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Cambridge, has been thinking about the uniqueness of the New Year 5782 in that, in addition to being a continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also represents a shmita (sabbatical) year. Shmita is the seventh year of a seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah, in which the land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity is forbidden.

“It’s all I’ve been thinking about the last couple months,” Curiel said. “Not only with the pandemic…but what some people call ‘climate weirding’ in this summer. We’ve seen droughts all over the world, flooding over parts of the world, wildfires we had recently. They recently said there’s an amount of rain here in New England like no one remembers. We already are living through the effects of climate change. And the pandemic has [been], at least for me, I think for a lot of people I’ve spoken to, a time of real soul-searching [and] reckoning.”

He added, “The opportunity [for] shmita is really to give a focus to this energy already aligning for [and] moving through us, whether we’re conscious of it or not.”

Asiyah is taking a somewhat different approach from other congregations by planning High Holiday services that are in-person and outdoors, in a park, with attendance capped at 60 and no virtual component.

“We’re open to anybody who wants to join us,” Curiel said.

He cited “an outpouring of desire to be together in-person and not to be virtual,” noting that this took place “after a lot of deliberation,” including “considerations for the Delta variant.”

“Everyone will be masked,” he said, “except for the person who’s reading primarily at that particular time or speaking. Because we are in a park, if people want to step away and take a mini break, they can do that as well.”

If it rains, “it will call for yet another sort of quick decision point,” he noted.

The pandemic has compelled many congregations to make decision after decision, and they continue to do so, into the High Holidays this year and beyond.

“[We] made it through the perils of last year,” Keith Stern said. “I think we learned to be resolute and resilient. I know what we will do institutionally is to provide our congregants and our guests, in-house and online both, with everything in our power to make sure they experience a High Holidays that [are] affirming and powerful and a balm to wearied souls. It’s what we’re aiming to do.”

Find events, services, recipes and crafts for Rosh Hashanah here, and for Yom Kippur here.