Drive-ins & radio broadcasts: How Toronto synagogues are providing High Holiday services during the pandemic

Aliza Spiro, the creative director of Song Shul in Toronto, faced a logistical dilemma: how to safely host the High Holidays during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s a question that has posed one of the biggest challenges for most synagogues this year.
According to Spiro, live-streaming could not be the only option. As a non-denominational congregation, their orthodox members would not click the live stream link as they are shomer Shabbat; while some of the older demographic might not know how to access certain technological requirements.

Therefore, the Song Shul came up with an innovative way to be inclusive for all: a radio broadcast.

“Music is everything for our shul, so sound quality is extremely important to us,” Spiro told me in an interview. “And leaving the radio on is easy, for those who are shomer Shabbat it solves the problem and for those who might find it hard to live stream, they can easily put on the radio.”

ZoomerMedia will be broadcasting four pre-recorded High Holy Day service programs on The New Classical 96.3 FM. Marking the first time in history that the High Holy Day experience will be available by radio in Canada.

Each program will be one-hour and will feature a cappella musical prayers sung by Spiro’s husband, Cantor Simon Spiro, who will be accompanied by the Toronto Festival Singers.


The Toronto Festival Singers in the recording studio. (Photo courtesy of Aliza Spiro)

“You cannot imagine what it was like to get this all together,” Spiro said. “It was an unbelievable production.”

She explained that each of the 18 singers needed to be divided into two groups to record separately.

When each group entered the recording studio, each singer was separated by plexiglass.
“I don’t want to say it was a logistical nightmare, but it was a challenge that no one has ever had in the music industry and synagogue community,” the creative director stated.
However, this method of bringing the High Holidays to the congregation and many others, was ultimately worth the time-intensive work.

“Having it public and open to everyone means there is no reason a Jewish person anywhere in the world will not be able to enjoy the most beautiful authentic high-quality music.”

But Song Shul will also be hosting High Holiday services in-person at the George Weston Recital Hall at The Meridian Arts Centre on Yonge Street.

The choir will be behind plexiglass and congregants will be spaced carefully. Everyone will need to take temperature checks, wear face masks or coverings and bring their own prayer books, machzor—if they do not have, the shul will provide the books to be used only once.

Flyer for the High Holidays. (Courtesy of Song Shul)

But the Song Shul isn’t the only congregation preparing a creative High Holiday experience.

The City Shul will be ending Rosh Hashanah with a shofar blowing at a drive-in for it’s Sundown Shofarpalooza.

On Sunday, September 20 the synagogue will end the festival at Ontario Place Drive-In and will require pre-registration as numbers will be limited for physical distancing. 

Other elements of this Rosh Hashanah service will include a video featuring congregation members reflecting on the new year and the delivery of key elements—the arrival of the Torah—on motorcycles driving through the parked vehicles to ensure that participants can engage.

“We had to find a way of not disrespecting tradition but also wanting to uplift people’s hearts,” Barbara Wade Rose, President of City Shul, told me in an interview.

And while the downtown shul has created alternative ways for congregants to enjoy the holidays this year,like the backyard Tashlich minyans of 10, there are still aspects of being in-person for the New Year that Rose will miss.

“There are kids usually running around all over the place and we all miss that. I miss that because it has an energy—we really miss that energy,” she explained.

It is a sentiment shared by Narayever Synangogue’s Rabbi, Ed Elkin.

“I will miss seeing everyone on the High Holidays, and the handshakes, and the hugs, and seeing everyone’s kids running around…but this is also a bit about recognizing that we can’t control everything,” he told me in an interview.

When Elkin started planning for the holidays around June, there were only two options of how to host the High Holy Days.

“Do we cancel them or go virtual? It felt that stark to me personally,” he responded. “Even if there was a loosening of the lockdown there would be no way we could convene the usual 900 people in the JCC gym,”—where the overflow services traditionally takes place.

Therefore, after consulting with the conservative movement, of which Narayever subscribes, they found that live-streaming the event was permissible.

Narayever’s flyer for the holidays. (Courtesy of Narayever Synagogue)

Officiated by Rabbi Elkin and Rabbi David Weiss, the services will take place at Leo Baeck Day School (the synagogue’s temporary home as it undergoes renovations). Though they will be live-streamed, a small congregation will be permitted to attend the services.
There will be strict protocols with distancing, masking, and ensuring hand sanitizer is accessible.

And to make the High Holidays a little more attractive, Elkin conceived the idea to have adult educational discussions as “one way to make what we’re offering stand out a little bit.”

Some of the sessions include a panel of doctors reflecting on personal and spiritual practices during the pandemic, with another discussing racism and repentance with Jewish-Black relations.

“All of the things that we assumed as how they have always been are now upended and different. Things now require a lot of adaptation and flexibility,” he noted.

Adaptation is the word to use when looking at how the services will be hosted this year.
Whether you’ll be at the drive-in, or tuning into a radio broadcast, or attending a physically distanced service, or watching the livestream from your home, the High Holidays are going to look different for everyone.

Hopefully these options will allow people to observe the holidays with loved ones, bringing back a little bit of familiarity, during a very unfamiliar time. 

Feature image from Shutterstock. 

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