Wilton temple prepares to celebrate holy days in new ways

GEORGETOWN — The pandemic will alter the way the Jewish High Holy Days are marked this year at Temple B’nai Chaim, but it will not dampen the spirit of the holiest time in the Jewish calendar.

As soon as she came on board in June as its spiritual leader, Cantor Harriet Dunkerley conferred with the temple’s executive and ritual committees who reached out to every member family, asking what they hoped to come away with from this year’s offerings.

“We are not looking at it as a series of services, which is the typical approach,” she said. “We are framing this as a high holiday experience,” drawing on what people said were their “must have moments.”

The result is a series of events intended to impart a connection to the community and a feeling of something greater than oneself.

While all services will be held online, either in a live interactive format or as a streaming webinar, there will also be some traditional live, in-person events. Virtual services will be available to the wider community.

“We have purchased upgraded Wi-Fi and cameras and we will broadcast services live from the sanctuary,” said Dunkerley, who will sing as she’s joined by her husband John, a professional pianist.

Dunkerley has also reached out to professional singers to join her in creating a virtual High Holy Day choir to record four pieces that are iconic to the season. Each is recording their piece separately and Wilton High School senior and temple member Jake Arnowitz will mix the vocals with the accompaniment.

Wanting to include as many members as possible as participants throughout the season, Dunkerley has reached out to some who are recording themselves chanting verses from the Torah to be used during services.

Shofar service

A signature event of Rosh Hashana is hearing the call of the shofar, the ram’s horn. Temple B’nai Chaim will have its shofar service at 2 p.m. Saturday in its parking lot at 82 Portland Ave. in Georgetown. This will be open to members only with advance registration. Dunkerley will be near the building with a high school student she described as a “wonderful shofar blower.” There will also be an abbreviated service.

From there, those who register in advance will participate in the Tashlich service, which Dunkerley described as “the casting off of whatever you want to let go of for the year.”

The group will walk to a stream where, after a few readings, she will invite them to “quietly contemplate what they might want to let go of from this past year that has been so challenging in so many ways.” As they cast off those self-doubts, people will also cast a small handful of breadcrumbs into the stream.

On the second day of Rosh Hashana, in lieu of a service, Dunkerley will lead a relaxed, socially distanced contemplative walk with moments to stop and reflect on the themes of the High Holy Days: forgiveness, repentance, renewal, welcoming the sweetness of the new year, good health, the turning away of the old and negative and welcoming the new.

Yom Kippur

In place of a formal afternoon service on Yom Kippur, on Oct. 3, there will be an Avodah — or more heart-centered — service, that will remember all that has been lost to the pandemic — “the lives as well as our lifestyle,” she said.

“It will be an opportunity for those in attendance to heal, to grieve, to express through some beautiful literature and poetry that’s in the Yom Kippur prayer book.”

Dunkerley will broadcast the Avodah service from the synagogue “with the ark open so our scrolls are there to soak up some of the sadness and offer some strength. The wood on which the Torah is affixed can be very grounding,” she said.

Two study sessions will be offered. The first, on Jonah, is a typical offering for Yom Kippur. However, in addition to that this year, Emma Dubin, a first-year rabbinical student, will offer a text study on a traditional Torah reading.

Dunkerley said she is particularly looking forward to Dubin’s participation since one of the temple’s goals is to offer opportunities for congregants to interact across “some of the demographic or perceived social boundaries we tend to erect. A community is much richer when we can cross those imaginary or real boundaries and interact in a different way.”


Although a final blast of the shofar will bring Yom Kippur to an end, Dunkerley said, “the gates of repentance remain open” and the temple will erect a temporary shelter known as a sukkah for the holiday of Sukkot, which is celebrated Oct. 2-9.

The holiday coincides with the opening of the temple’s religious school, and families may receive age-appropriate craft material that children may bring to the temple on Oct. 4 to decorate the sukkah.

Taking a meal in the sukkah is a holiday tradition, and families that feel comfortable may sign up for a time to do so.

“I hope in listening to our congregants and with careful planning and discussion we’ll be able to provide what people need and what people are hoping for at the High Holy Days,” Dunkerley said. “Sometimes you don’t know what you need until you’ve experienced it.

“My fervent prayer is that people who attend one service or another will leave feeling renewed, refreshed, reconnected and grounded and spiritually full and alive and ready to embrace everything 5781 has to offer us, particularly all the sweetness I pray for in the coming year.”

Temple members must register online for all High Holy Day services.

Friends, guests and extended family of congregants may also request access to services by completing the guest registration form, found here. Suggested donation amounts are $54 for one person; $180 for a family.

The entire schedule is available online.