BCC Rises to the Occasion with Innovative High Holy Day Season

This article is reprinted from BCC’s newsletter, Gvanim, vol. 49 no. 2, November/December 2020, Cheshvan/Kislev/Tevet 5781.
Larry Nathenson

In the midst of a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and heightened political and racial tensions in our country, BCC shared with all Jewish communities the challenge of a High Holy Day season this year with no in-person services or gatherings. Our clergy, Rabbi Jillian Cameron and Cantor Juval Porat, urged us to adapt to this highly unusual situation with these inspiring words in the last issue of G’vanim:

“5780 has been a year unlike any of us could have imagined, and we know some of you feel the loss of High Holy Days as they have been in the past. We encourage you to bring your authentic selves, including all feelings and emotions that arise for you at this holy season…. All offerings will be online this year – in compliance with state regulations as well as our own Jewish values of keeping every member of our community safe. We can’t wait to share these High Holy Days with all of you, together as a community in all the ways that matter.”

With the enthusiastic assistance of our professional staff, lay leaders, several former clergy, and numerous volunteers (see below), Rabbi Jillian and Cantor Juval more than delivered on their promise.  While we did miss the opportunity to hug old friends and perhaps meet new ones, and the chance to share an oneg, lunch, or break fast with our community in person, this year’s services were filled with the spirituality and community feeling for which BCC is renowned.  Those who live outside the Los Angeles area found it easier to attend, since they did not have to travel to Temple Isaiah.

The major services of Rosh Hashanah evening and morning, Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur morning were shorter than usual but still retained the inspirational quality we have all come to expect.  We recited the usual prayers as well as the short and long confessions, and heard the customary Torah and Haftarah readings for the Days of Awe.  Those who had purchased copies of our Reform community machzor, Mishkan Hanefesh, could follow along at home, while copies were available for download by those who did not have them.  The estimated attendance on Zoom was between 150 and 200 for each of the major services, with some individuals sharing screens.

As a member of the Rabbinic Search Committee, I can proudly state that Rabbi Jillian exceeded all expectations in her first High Holy Day season with BCC.  She offered four riveting sermons, all of them on topics relevant to the crises we are all living through.  A self-identified “history nerd,” she made reference in one of them to the ways in which the British Jewish community responded to the crisis of World War II in the context of our contemporary challenges.  She ably demonstrated her appreciation for BCC’s community traditions while also gently moving us in some new directions with her unique personal style.

Cantor Juval outdid himself in filling our services with spiritual music, both vocal and instrumental.  He also utilized his technological skills to bring us numerous pre-recorded pieces.  At one point we had four clones of Cantor Juval on screen singing different parts of the same piece.  We also enjoyed several pre-recorded videos from past High Holy Day services and other occasions, reminding us wistfully of the joys of being together in celebration.

In lieu of the usual morning service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, our clergy led us in a creative text study of the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, one of the traditional Rosh Hashanah Torah portions.  They also enhanced our experience with their theatrical talents, as Cantor Juval offered a haunting portrait of a modern-day Abraham under arrest for the attempted sacrifice of his son, with Rabbi Jillian as his interrogator and Rabbi Emerita Lisa Edwards as narrator.

Our choir has long been a beloved part of our BCC services, and Cantor Juval made sure it remained so this year by recording the individual vocal parts of choir members and expertly weaving them together.  He also interspersed several guest cantorial and instrumental appearances into our services.  Many thanks to choir members Stevie Anayah, Tina Appel, Davi Cheng, Howard Hamburger, Michele Madrigal, Gina Manziello, Dave Parkhurst, Estaire Press, Marjorie Rothman, and Elise Zimmerman, and our guest musicians and singers Scott Ferguson, Cantor Faryn Kates Rudnick, Tamara Kline, Cantor Lonee Frailich, Cantor Aviva Marer, Janice Mautner Markham & Gideon Markham, Cantor Rebekah Mirsky, The JAC Trio, and Shir Zehavi.

The Torah services were also pre-recorded, in the courtyard outside our building.  Many thanks to our expert Torah readers Robin Berkovitz, Helen Brand, Tamara Kline, Deborah Lowe, Melissa Minkin, Todd Moellenberg, Dave Parkhurst, and Stephen Sass, as well as gabbai Steven Hochstadt.

Several former BCC clergy and student clergy were given the honor of aliyot (reciting the Torah blessings), which most of them could not have done during in-person services.  It was a pleasure to see and hear Rabbis Janet Marder, Heather Miller, Joe Hample, Lindy Reznick, Alyson Solomon, and D’ror Chankin-Gould, as well as Rabbi Emerita Lisa Edwards and Lezbtzn Tracy Moore, Cantor Don Croll, and Cantorial Emerita Fran Chalin.

Our Yizkor service on Yom Kippur included the customary reading of the names, carefully articulated by Michael Main and Elise Zimmerman.  A virtual yizkor book (compiled by me, with the assistance of our graphic designer Maggie Boyles and advertisements procured by Aviyah Farkas) was streamed as a slideshow and also available as a PDF download.

Having all virtual services did not deprive us of the mitzvah of hearing the shofar during our Days of Awe, thanks once again to the marvels of Zoom technology.  We thank our shofar sounders Davi Cheng, Aviyah Farkas, Dave Parkhurst, Amy Pomrantz, and Lauren Schlau.

Director of Education Rae Antonoff Portnoy and her able assistant Ms. Purple kept our families with children connected to our community as well, with Youth and Family programs on Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah, and Yom Kippur.

The High Holy Days are usually one of our major fundraising occasions, along with the Vision Awards brunch in the spring, which of course did not occur this year.  With all virtual services, we could not charge visitors for tickets this year.  But our stalwart member Adam Kulbersh, who often emcees the brunch, gave a compelling High Holy Days appeal.  With the assistance of his three-year-old son Jack, Adam eschewed his usual comedic style to address the even greater need for support for our community in this difficult time.  As an actor who has been out of work for months due to Covid-19, he could certainly give it a personal spin.

Another new and highly innovative part of our High Holy Days this year was a series of workshops during the intermediate days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  The first, led by Rabbi Emerita Lisa, was entitled “What? There Are 10 Days of Awe?” and explored the ways we can engage in spiritual growth and reflection during the week.  After a breakout session in which participants wrote their own creative prayers for the Days of Awe, Rabbi Lisa circulated these for additional inspiration and edification.  Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, in “Sexual Sins and Queer Community: An exploration of Tefillah Zakah,” helped us to examine our relationship to sexuality in a Jewish context in the LGBTQ community.  Rounding out the week were “Overcoming our Blindspots: An Evening with [singer-songwriter] Charlie Kramer” and “Judaic Sacred Music Foundation: Beethoven to Bor’chu – the creation of a symphony based on the High Holiday Liturgy,” with Dr. Steve Rothstein.

Many thanks to all those who helped to make our High Holy Day experience fulfilling and illuminating this year.  In addition to those mentioned above, special thanks go to our office manager Erin Katz, our Ritual Committee consisting of Ginger Jacobs (chair), Lee Alhadeff, Davi Cheng, Jessica Donath, Michael Main, and Elise Zimmerman, our technology coordinator and past president Richard Lesse, and our intrepid Zoom volunteers Marc Breindel, Davi Cheng, Jessica Donath, Jonathan Falk, Ginger Jacobs, Jay Jacobs, Jeffrey Janis, Mike King, Jim Potter, Elizabeth Savage, Donna Quigley Groman, Elise Zimmerman, and Miriam Zimmerman.  We couldn’t have done it without all of you!