Ex-Obama health official gives a Rosh Hashanah pep talk on dealing with coronavirus


(JTA) – As the High Holidays approach, Jews across the country are preparing for a Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur like none they’ve ever experienced.

Andy Slavitt, a former Obama administration official who ran Medicare and Medicaid from 2015 to 2017, wants to encourage his fellow Jews to look on the bright side.

“This is a year for maximum creativity,” Slavitt said in a conversation with Leah Jones, host of the Finding Favorites podcast and the president of her Chicago synagogue.

Slavitt, an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic who hosts his own podcast on the pandemic — In the Bubble With Andy Slavitt — emphasized that the main job for synagogues this year is to protect their elderly members who are most at risk of dying from the coronavirus.

“When I say use creativity, don’t lose the spirit of what makes the holiday special,” he said.

Most synagogues across the country have been closed since stay-at-home orders were imposed across the country in March. While many Orthodox synagogues are planning to hold in-person services this year, most Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues this year will conduct High Holiday services over Zoom or other livestreaming platforms.

Jones asked Slavitt to give Jewish listeners a pep talk as they contemplate a High Holiday season without in-person synagogue gatherings.

“It’s undeniable that we’ve made the right choice, but it’s hard to deny people the chance to pray together,” Jones said.

Slavitt encouraged synagogues to reinvent rituals and consider in-person gatherings held outdoors. He mentioned the Kaddish, the memorial prayer, as having a particular resonance this year and as a way to commemorate those who have died in the pandemic.

“Find those special touch points,” he said. “Replace every negative with a positive so if you can’t do an X, don’t just say let’s feel deprived, say let’s do Y instead of X.”

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