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By all accounts, the days, weeks and months that precede Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are of great preparation and anticipation for Chazzonim and Baaley Tefilah. It is the penultimate marathon for those who lead Davening. Legend has it that Cantors who have the slightest cough or tickle in their throat after the first Seder are rushing to make appointment with ENTs, fearful that there may be something wrong with their vocal apparatus. In the final weeks that precede Yom Tov, the preparations reach a crescendo. Cantors are preparing for these great days with deep sincerity as they search for new melodies that might engage their congregations and get themselves spiritually “ready” for the awesome task of leading a congregation in Tefilah.

Corona has turned the world upside down. There is almost no area in our daily lives that has not been completely upended. How powerful and poignant are the words this year, “who shall live and who shall die”? How many of us stood in Shul last year, next to our friends, family members, and loved ones, and couldn’t imagine in our wildest dreams, that when we arrive at the same passage this year, we would be standing alone, orphaned from those we love, and separated from our dearest friends and leaders of our communities?

This year will look different not only because of the 100,000’s of people we have lost physically, but also because of those who we’ve lost a connection with. For many of our communities, and I speak of my own in Manhattan, social distancing has caused members- especially our elders- not to come to Shul. This is extremely challenging because what makes Shuls so meaningful to attend, and Davening so powerful is the community and congregation that are behind them, supporting the prayers of the Chazzan.

This year, the scenery at our Shul and so many others like ours will look different. The numbers that we expect are a quarter at best of our regular attendants. On any given year for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, you would have close to a thousand members in the main sanctuary, overflowing with people, standing room only. Parents huddled with children, sitting beside the grandparents, three, sometimes four generations in deep devotion, united in prayer. This year, that would not be the case.

Since time immemorial, congregations have abided by time restrictions. After all, one cannot be blind to the clock or to the patience of the people. However, covid turned the sensitivity of time on its head. What’s more, as Chazzanim we would have to change the course and rhythm of the Davening, a Davening that could easily take from four to six hours would have to be compressed to two hours. The conundrum that we face is, what to say and what not to say? Where to put an emphasis? Where to make the highlight? What melody should be used in order to engage the congregation? It is not a simple task by any means.

My favorite mantra in life is “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. I believe that that is especially true this year. Our days are filled with so many lemons, with so much challenge, with so much uncertainty, but it is in our hands, those who are leading the Davening in congregations throughout the world, to make the very sweetest sounds and the most meaningful connections.

The great Chazzan, Yossele Rosenblatt, used to say before he got up to lead services: You need a “Tefilah al Hatefilah”, a prayer about a prayer. To Daven, to Hashem, that the prayer should go well, that they should connect with a congregation. You could have a Chazzan with the greatest voice that makes the smallest impact. This year; yes, it is true that we are facing a challenge like never before, but we are also facing an opportunity like never before. People are coming to Shul primed, ready, emotionally alert, socially distanced but emotionally connected. All we have to do is open the hearts. Our job this year is not about how long or how beautiful the pieces we are going to sing will be, but it’s about the connections we are going to make.

So, I enter this Yamim Noraim with tremendous trepidation, but equally with hope that the prayers this year will be different than any other; different in a positive, meaningful and spiritual way. May Hashem give the wisdom to the messengers of His people, those who have the very awesome task of leading Tefilah in these very tenuous days. To reach spiritual highs and deep connections with our members, all of whom are desperately praying for a better year. A year filled with good health, peace and tranquility.

About Cantor Benny

Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky serves as Cantor of the prestigious Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Cantor Benny has lectured widely on Cantorial music and its application to prayer. He has taught and guided many of today's well-known cantors. He is involved at the leadership level in many charitable organizations with a unique flair for organization and implementation of community projects. Cantor Benny is one of the founders of FrumDivorce, a community-support organization, dedicated to supporting members of the religious community, who are going through the divorce process, with a specific focus on parenting and guidance on how to deal with the emotional fallout of separation and divorce.

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