Under Lockdown, Israel Faces a Quiet and Lonely Rosh Hashana

Marks to keep a 2-meter distance are seen on the floor at the Kotel. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has imposed a three-week lockdown, beginning on Friday afternoon — just hours before Rosh Hashana starts. Israel’s first lockdown, in March and April, put a damper on Pesach.

Now, Rosh Hashana looks to be similarly subdued.

Israel has seen new daily cases of COVID-19 skyrocket in recent weeks, climbing to more than 5,000 on Wednesday — one of the highest per capita infection rates in the world. Since the pandemic began this year, it has recorded more than 169,000 cases, including 1,163 deaths, as of Wednesday, according to Health Ministry figures.

This year, traditional family gatherings will be muted, davening will be limited to small groups and travel restrictions will leave many roads deserted.

In Israel, movement during the lockdown will be restricted to within 500 meters (yards) of one’s home. Gatherings are limited to 10 people indoors, and 20 outside, restricting the number of faithful who can attend shul. Bars, restaurants, and cultural venues will be shut, but many  religious facilities will remain open.

Israelis have been frustrated since the gains made with the first lockdown — when the virus seemed to have been brought under control — were erased within weeks, with authorities unable to stem the spike that followed. Weekly protests have drawn thousands to Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence, with demonstrators demanding his resignation over his handling of the virus, the pandemic’s fallout and his corruption trials.

Many Jewish worshippers elsewhere in the world will have to alter synagogue services due to social distancing rules, and may hold prayers and hear the traditional sounding of the shofar — a ceremonial ram’s horn — on street corners or at home.

Chabad has recruited thousands of volunteers to blow the shofar at public squares and street corners worldwide.

“The unique circumstances that leave millions outside the synagogue doors this year contain also the silver lining of helping them rediscover, reintegrate and celebrate the holiness of the true center of Jewish life — the Jewish home,” said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, spokesman for Chabad.

An Israeli online application is helping pair shofar blowers with those who want to hear the shofar in their neighborhoods.

With gatherings in shuls across Israel limited to 10 worshipers, some Israelis are organizing services in courtyards and gardens. At the Kotel, the plaza is crisscrossed with dividers to allow small groups to pray.

Addressing the country on Thursday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin offered a message of sympathy over the lockdown.

The lockdown hampers “our ability to be together, to celebrate together, to mourn together, to pray together,” Rivlin said. “I want us to raise our heads and believe.”

Israeli police are sending out thousands of officers in a bid to enforce the regulations, with lockdown violators facing hundreds of dollars in fines.

For Moises Sandler, 26, this Rosh Hashana was meant to be the first family reunion around the holiday table in years. He immigrated from Mexico in 2018, joining two brothers already living in Israel. His parents followed suit this past year.

“It’s a bummer because we were planning to have this big dinner, have friends over,” said Sandler, who lives in Tel Aviv. His parents live in the suburb of Herzliya, several miles away.

“We don’t know even if we’re going to be able to do it all together.”