When I was thirteen, I spent my weekends attending bar and bat mitzvahs. Most were at my synagogue, but a few friends attended a different synagogue in a neighboring city. The high stained-glass windows and golden organ of that synagogue were foreign and intimidating. Still, I was almost an adult in the Jewish community. After years of study, I knew exactly when to sing, when to stand, and how to bow when the rabbi began reciting kaddish. Or so I thought.
At one bar mitzvah in this grand synagogue, the cantor began to chant what I thought was the opening prayer which I knew, I realized the words were different. Flipping through the Torah proved to be little help, so I sat with the closed book, waiting to hear something familiar.
When the rabbi called for us to chant the shema, essentially the Jewish call to prayer (“Hear, O Israel”) ten minutes later, I loudly joined in, eager to participate, and get some practice for my own upcoming bat mitzvah. After only a few seconds, however, I fell silent: my words were right, but the tune was wrong. For the rest of the service, I stared at the floor, waiting mutely for it to end, and listening to the foreign notes ringing in the domes of the vaulted ceiling.
This feeling of isolation in a religious setting is familiar to many Reform Jews. As a religion steeped in diaspora, services and traditions differ by region and congregation, and prayer melodies are just the beginning of the divergence. Because the Jewish community lacks central leadership, respective communities rely upon their own interpretations of Torah. While there is some agreement within the different movement (e.g., Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) about which scriptural laws to follow, each congregation may interpret and practice these laws and accompanying scriptural traditions in many styles and to varying degrees.
This is liberating on one level, but it can also be intimidating. When young people move away from their home congregation, joining another religious community or even attending services at another synagogue can feel daunting. Many, myself included, end up forgoing Jewish community affiliations and the accompanying ritual observances. After all, Judaism is a communal experience. Practices are passed from generation to generation. Torah is written in Hebrew and chanted by rabbis. And Torah states that in order to hold a formal prayer service, a “minyan” of ten people over thirteen years old (some traditions insist it be ten men; others count women) or more must be gathered. For young people, the options seem to be finding a new community or passing on Jewish religious and cultural practice altogether.
This year, the High Holidays threw this question of communal gathering into sharp relief. The holiest time of the year for the Jewish people, the High Holidays span the weeks of late September to early October, encompassing Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and for some Sukkot (the Festival of Ingathering, or Tabernacles). The services are usually packed to the point of bursting; however, during the pandemic, gatherings have ceased, and the fundamental communal nature of observance has been forced to shift.
Online observance may buck traditions, but it does serve as an equalizer of sorts. Tickets to attend in-person services are often a coveted, expensive commodity, and even those for whom it is a small extravagance may find it difficult to make it to the service as many take place in the morning of what is a normal workday for most of America. With services taking place online this year, many synagogues are waving entrance fees and streaming at multiple times of day, opening up services not only to young people and others who could not afford to attend, but to any curious person, regardless of religious affiliation.
A few weeks ago, I was wading through invitations to Zoom services, where I could hear the shofar blown through my tiny computer speakers. I turned to social media to see if any of my friends would be celebrating and was surprised to find “shana tova” trending on Tik Tok.
“Shana tova” is Hebrew for “Happy New Year” and it is a common greeting during the High Holidays. Still, I was surprised to see it on Tik Tok. As I scrolled through the tag, various videos popped up: challah baking tutorials, history lessons on the origins of Rosh Hashanah, people dipping apples in honey.
While there were many videos covering the same topic, each seemed unique. The challahs were different shapes – some were even vegan – and the English transliterations of Hebrew phrases were equally non-uniform.
Clicking on the accounts posting these videos led to an even wider world of “Jewish Tik Tok.” Since the pandemic began, the app’s popularity has risen, and most users range between the ages of ten and twenty-nine. Young people not only seek entertainment on Tik Tok, but they express themselves as well – a trend extending to the young Jewish community. Popular Jewish related Tik Tok accounts dole out fashion advice for the modest dresser or comedically dramatize Jewish folklore.
The isolation of the pandemic has devastated traditional worship, yet it seems to have made space for individualized engagement in Jewish cultural practice online, especially among young people. And the personal religious connections extend past the virtual realm.
After seeing these Tik Toks, I asked my friends on my Instagram story to tell me their plans for the High Holidays. Many said they attended online services, but overwhelmingly were taking aspects of traditional celebration and crafting their own ritual practices after engaging in online worship. One friend took bread to the pier near their home and performed tashlich — the word means “to cast away” and the ceremony, celebrated in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Judaism, consists of throwing bread into a body of water to symbolize casting away one’s sins. “It was very much about personal responsibility and holding myself to it because it was something I enjoyed connecting with,” my friend said. “I found more freedom in how I chose to participate than I think I otherwise would have.”
Another walked to the George Washington Bridge and prayed. “At first I was self-conscious” she wrote, “but then, as I realized no one was looking, I began to stand, sit, and sing out loud.”
In an era when it is unsafe to gather, young people are connecting with Judaism in a way which feels fulfilling to them. We do not have to fit ourselves into an existing community., We are scattered once again in a modern-day diaspora created by a modern-day plague.
This does not mean we have stopped craving community. Recently, I received a message from a friend living in a Moishe House. (The organization creates communal housing for young Jewish people.) My friend’s message invited me to her community’s virtual Sukkot celebration.
The invitation read: “This year, we wanted to reimagine what Sukkot could look like, and how we could gather together under one dwelling, if not in person, maybe it could be through time spent in the same space? Stay with us here. Let’s gather together in the same Sukkah, on different days. Come, borrow our Sukkah, decorate, eat, laugh, draw, and play.”
I wouldn’t know the prayers at the Moishe House. I wouldn’t know whom I might see–virtually–there. But, after four years of missing services and six months of missing people, I was no longer scared of not belonging, or of getting the tune wrong. I was simply happy to be invited.