How will this year’s Rosh HaShanah davening in Queens be different from any other year? With the pandemic, shuls had to plan davening while keeping in mind social distancing, masks, and concerns about the length of the service. It was fascinating to learn about all the details that different shuls and yeshivos are implementing so that everyone will be safe and healthy and still be able to participate in Rosh HaShanah davening. Many things were surprising. This writer had the honor to speak to many of our choshuve rabbanim about the plans for their shuls, and they also shared their perspective and their suggestions on what we should focus on in our davening this year on Rosh HaShanah.

Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum, rav of Kehilas Nachlas Yitzchok, shared that this year, when we daven Modim, we should focus on the z’chus we had to survive through the pandemic and we should truly appreciate the gift of life. Hashem gave us an opportunity to be here to start a new year. He quoted the Ramban in Parshas Yisro that when we say thank you this doesn’t really show thanks. We have a chiyuv to show Hashem that we are adding in some area of avodas Hashem. We cannot remain in the same place. We need to show Hashem that in our avodah we are being pushed to a higher level and this is the way to say thank you to Hashem. He added that the Chofetz Chaim taught that a person needs to have kavanah when he recites Y’hei Sh’mei rabba…” that this tears a g’zar din. Chazal teach us that these words have great power and we need to give them proper kavanah. “This is the main source of y’shuah.”

Rav Oelbaum then shared an idea taught by Rav Chaim of Volozhin. We know that all of a person’s needs are established on Rosh HaShanah. If we want to receive our needs, then our focus during davening should be on crowning Hashem as King. We are accepting Hashem as Melech over us and we commit ourselves to serve Him as our King. “If you want to be successful, then say to Hashem “I need health and parnasah to serve You. I need the secondary tools.” If our intention is that we need these tools to serve Hashem better, then all the accusers fall by the wayside.” Rav Oelbaum emphasized that our main t’filah on Rosh HaShanah is that Hashem is King and we accept to serve Him.”

He related that, this year, davening at his shul on Rosh HaShanah will start with Hodu, so people will daven up to that point at home. Also, they will skip one piyut. People will wear masks and sit socially distanced. The baal t’kiah was tested for COVID-19, and so, according to the doctors in the shul, this ensures everyone’s safety when he blows the shofar.

Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, rav of Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, shared that this year, when we recite “Avinu Malkeinu, please protect us from the plague,” this will have extra meaning for us. This year, all the t’filos on Rosh HaShanah are more significant. “We can’t take life for granted.”

He shared that there will be an outdoor tent for davening on Rosh HaShanah at the Young Israel, and there will also be indoor davening. Everyone will be socially distanced and masked. Davening will be abbreviated according to the p’sak of Rav Hershel Schachter shlita. The heart of the t’filah will remain the same. Davening will start later and there will be no sermons. Rabbi Schonfeld’s drashos for the shul are on Zoom every Thursday night.

Rabbi Schonfeld explained the three main concerns that prompted the need for the above changes this year in the Rosh HaShanah davening: 1. We want to minimize the exposure of being near everyone. 2. We want to minimize restroom use. 3. It is difficult to wear a mask all those hours.

Also, only those with reservations will be able to daven at the Young Israel because of the need to limit the amount of people in the shul. In addition, kohanim will wash themselves this year.

Rabbi Schonfeld shared that there were weekly meetings to plan all of these details. They had to map out the physical shul and the timing of each minyan. Inside the shul, the minyan downstairs will have chairs set up apart. In the main shul, there will be taped off areas.

Rabbi Hayim Schwartz, Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Seminary of America-Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, shared that this year our kavanah should be to daven for good health and that Hashem should protect klal Yisrael from the virus. Last year, when we davened the U’N’saneh Tokef and we said the statement “Who will die by plague,” we thought of this as something from a thousand years ago. It was something kids learned about in school: the Black Plague, the Bubonic Plague. We see the power of our t’filos and how the words are relevant for all time. “Last year, no one would have thought that the entire world would be shut down by a microscopic virus.” Rabbi Schwartz noted, “How many have lost jobs or have been sick in the hospital. We must be careful with everything we are praying. The prayers say that Hashem is judging us. We see it is relevant.”

Rabbi Schwartz shared that the Yeshiva hopes to accommodate anyone who davened with the Yeshiva in the past. They also hope to accommodate alumni who normally daven with them. The yeshivah built clear partitions for use in the Beis Midrash and those will be used for davening time. Masks will be required in aisles and hallways. There will be a second parallel minyan in the gym and an alumni minyan in the dining room so everyone can spread out. The davening will be the same prayers as always. The shofar blower will stand at the shulchan as there are many feet surrounding him there. This year, the kiddush will be served boxed and given to everyone in his seat. It’s clear that much planning went into all these details to keep everyone as safe as possible.

Rabbi Simantov Yanetz, rav of the Young Israel Sephardic Minyan of Briarwood (which is housed in the Young Israel of Briarwood), shared that this year we must focus on spirituality, not materialism, and our main focus in t’filah should be how to grow spiritually. It’s a s’gulah to accept something upon oneself before Rosh HaShanah. He cautioned that it is better to accept one thing, because when someone takes on too many things he end up with nothing.

“Choose one small kabalah to do during Elul and this should bring a z’chus for a good judgment.” He shared that the Sephardic davening on Rosh HaShanah is generally shorter than the Ashkenazic davening. They start at 8:30 a.m. and end around 1:00 p.m. This year, no children under bar mitzvah will be permitted.

Rabbi Elan Segelman, rav of Kehillas Torah Temima (KTT), shared that our kavanah this year should be that we must appoint Hashem as King. We must realize that Hashem runs the show. We’re all subject to His decree. This year more than any, we have a deep understanding of this. We realize we must follow in His ways. KTT will have two minyanim, one indoors in the Yeshiva of Central of Queens dining room, and one in a tent outside in the Yeshiva of Central of Queens parking lot. Davening will be regular standard davening for Rosh HaShanah but at a faster pace. Social distancing and masks will be required.

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg, rav of Congregation Etz Chaim, shared that our kavanah this year on Rosh HaShanah should be to keep in mind those who are testing positive for COVID-19, those who have suffered long-term effects from COVID, those who have lost a loved one, those who have lost their jobs and are barely subsisting, those who suffer emotionally from the fear and isolation of the last months, and those who wish they could be with us in shul but cannot. He added, “Have in mind educators who have labored so mightily to open their institutions, when all their work might be undone by one careless family. Also, have in mind people who have no homes because they were evacuated due to wildfires in California, and those who are bearing up under temperatures of 100 degrees and more. Have in mind those who languish for lack of someone to reach out to them; have in mind our divided community and country who are facing a fateful choice on November 3.”

Rabbi Rosenberg imparted, “For two reasons, we will connect to Yizkor this year in ways we never could before. First, the essence of Yizkor is facing the transitory nature of life. We’ve always said the words: Man is but a breath; his days but a passing shadow... Help us count our days that we may develop a wise heart. For a few moments, we would think about the words. And then the non-Yizkor sayers would file back in, and life continued, endless.

“Now we get it. We’ve seen people close to us taken much too soon. We’ve seen great scholars and unlettered alike fall to the scythe of the virus. There is no shul in which there hasn’t been a loss. We get it. Yizkor is real. At least for this year, we don’t have to imagine the fragility of life.

“We have known what it means to long for the end of a long night. We are, in yeshivish terms, “in the parshah.” When we recall holy neshamos during Yizkor, we will not feel equal to them, but closer.

“In the same way that, having battled cancer (and still battling), I am in a certain “club” that comes with dread but also privileges, so is everyone who says Yizkor in 2020. Our 2020 vision is clearer in these ways.

“And this is one reason that I would urge all of us assembled, in whichever minyan we find ourselves, whether we have lost a loved one or not, to remain inside for Yizkor this year. There is no person who cannot identify this year with the ideas of Yizkor. And logistically, this will also make unsafe mingling and virus spread less likely. We pray that next year it will be harder to get into the mood for Yizkor.”

Etz Chaim will have three minyanim. Two will be indoors (at Etz Chaim and at YCQ) and one will be outdoors (in the YCQ parking lot). They will all be masked and socially distanced. The large end of the shofar will be covered, and the baal t’kiah will blow in the corner towards the outside. They will follow the directions of Rav Schachter and Rav Willig in streamlining to keep people safe.

Rabbi Chaim Alcabes, rav of Mekor Habracha, shared that “this is going to be the greatest Rosh HaShanah in the history of the world. Such an opportunity! We have all suffered losses of g’dolim and community members.”

He stated, “I am optimistic that we are looking at something good because only one other time in the history of the world did am Yisrael have to stay in their homes for Pesach, and that was the first Pesach in Mitzrayim. This year, we had to stay in our homes, so there must be a connection between that first generation and ours, and that connection must be g’ulah.” He added that something very precious and very chashuv is going on. Now, it’s Rosh HaShanah and, baruch Hashem, we lived through this pandemic. Look at the dedication of klal Yisrael. We had mitzvos to do and we did them. Nothing stops us.

He pointed out how, during Temple times, the Yom Kippur service was so different. Then the people waited to see if the Kohen Gadol would come out of the Temple alive. After the Temple was destroyed, we adapted to a different way of observing Yom Kippur. Now, we had no shuls and we had to be inside. T’shuvah, he taught, means returning to the source. We need to focus on this.

His minyan is a neitz minyan, which usually hosts 200 attendees. However, this year, they can only have a limited number, and by reservation only, to accommodate social distancing. This shul is davening downstairs in Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, and they begin at five a.m. and they finish at 10:15 a.m. There will be shofar blowing outside for the ladies.

Rabbi Ashie Schreier, rav of the Young Israel of Forest Hills, shared that this year we see clearly that Hashem runs the world and He will do what is best for us. This is a time to connect to Him. The Young Israel of Forest Hills will have socially distanced, masked davening at a quicker pace. Also, the sh’liach tzibur will stand in the front instead of the middle as is the custom.

It is inspiring to see the hard work and planning of the shuls and yeshivos in our neighborhood on our behalf, in order to have meaningful Rosh HaShanah davening that is as safe as possible.

Our community is grateful for all this hard work and planning, and for the wonderful rabbanim who inspire us and lead us. Hashem should bless us all with a sweet, healthy new year and take away this plague for good.

By Susie Garber