Every year come September, Hilary Kip and her family grab some stale bread and head to Lake Balboa for a time-honored tradition.
"We have some lovely sourdough and some lovely English muffins that are a little past their prime, and we're going to toss them into the water."
Called Tashlich, the Jewish ritual involves a symbolic casting of sins in the form of breadcrumbs. From the Hebrew word meaning, "to cast," the custom is performed at a river or a lake, with worshipers symbolically throwing their sins into a source of water.
It's a popular event for the Kip family, one that her sons, Kenny and Danny — both on the autism spectrum — look forward to every year.
"It's just kind of a relief. It's a way to have a little bit of fun and celebrate the passing of the old year and the beginning of the New Year," she said.
A delicate blend of joy and solemnity, The High Holidays are usually the busiest time of year for congregations worldwide. But for the first time in 350 years of American Jewish history, synagogues are sitting empty.
"This year, the gathering has to be virtual," Valley Beth Shalom Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein said. "But we miss the face-to-face connection with friends and neighbors. We miss seeing new children in the community. We miss holding the older people in the community. We miss it terribly.
Even outdoor ceremonies like the Tashlich are getting a makeover. Usually a one-day event, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino hosted five different gatherings this year to allow for smaller crowds and social distancing.
Instead of the usual 500 people, the event drew only a few families. For many, this is the first time seeing each other since the pandemic began.
But even with all the heartache caused by COVID-19, Feinstein insists there's at least one silver lining.
"One of the things that COVID teaches us is that we are really responsible for each other," Feinstein said. "People have lost connections with friends and family, people have lost business and finance and family fortunes, people have lost their hopes and dreams. And what happened in response is we reached out to help each other."
At the end of the ceremony, the Kip family joined the rest of the congregation at the water's edge to toss bread into the lake, to the delight of dozens of ducks.
"Everyone has their strategy for making the ducks happy," Kip said. "We'll take little pieces and cast them. When the boys were little, they would frisbee one slice out, and the whole wad is shot."
It's been a rough year for everyone around her, she said. One perhaps best summed up by the song playing in the background by a young musician from the synagogue, who was belting out an Israeli folk song traditionally sung during Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
"You will see, you will see oh how good it will be next year, next year, next year," he sang.