Because of COVID, Jews will ring in Rosh Hashana with empty synagogue seats

Bay Area Jewish congregations are preparing to celebrate the Jewish High Holy Days with pandemic protocols this year. Rosh Hashana begins on Friday evening followed by Yom Kippur the following week. 

The California Department of Public Health issued a reminder Thursday with three rabbis from the Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform movements of Judaism, urging people to maintain social distancing while worshipping. 

At Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, Rabbi Mark Bloom says the familiar sound of the shofar, traditionally made from a ram's horn, typically brings Jewish congregations together to mark the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

With the coronavirus pandemic, however, seats will be empty at synagogues and temples throughout California.

"We're changing things significantly for Rosh Hashana this year. The service is mostly virtual as you can imagine. Me and a couple other people are helping to lead in this giant sanctuary," said Rabbi Bloom.

Bloom says only a Torah-reading for teens will be in-person, but quite different with social distancing.

"Normally we have seven people reading from one Torah," he said. "This time we have seven different Torahs, seven different stations to keep everyone safe." 

In the Temple Beth Abraham kitchen, cooks wearing masks made traditional foods that are meant to be shared together, but for some will be eaten alone or with family only.

"It's a challenge," Bloom said. "I miss people terribly. People miss seeing one another. How do you create a community that's virtual instead of in person?" 

That question is at the heart of this year's high holy days.

"This whole process of reinventing the high holidays for COVID times has been a tremendous experience in creativity," said Rabbi Chai Levy of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

Levy says her congregation held a drive-by holiday pickup this week. Members pulled into the parking lot to receive bags with a traditional honey cake and other items to help celebrate the Jewish New Year.

They also plan to have a virtual celebration online.

The rabbi says they also plan to have the shofar horns covered in masks, along with the people blowing into the shofar horns to help prevent the spread of any aerosol particles that might be carrying the coronavirus.

In Berkeley, Saul's Restaurant & Delicatessen is among the many Bay Area restaurants and bakeries offering takeout with traditional Rosh Hashana dinners of brisket, round challah loaves, and sweet honey and apple cakes.

"I think people are looking for the new year and people are looking to have the comfort of a holiday and foods that they know," said Karen Adelman, co-owner of Saul's.

The message from the rabbis for these difficult times is one of hope.

"I share some stories from Jewish history where there have been times of devastation that lead to new birth and new beginnings," Levy said.

Added Bloom: "It's the turning of a new year, the turning of a new leaf, a chance to be our best selves and make the world a better place." 

Residents in the East Bay might hear the call of the shofar horns over the weekend. Congregations in the East Bay are encouraging their members to go outside and join in the sounding of their shofar horns together at 3 p.m. Sunday.

For a list of other Jewish events, click here. 

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Jana at and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana