When rabbi Yaakov Glasman sat in his St Kilda synagogue on Friday morning, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, he felt empty.
He acknowledges the feeling is likely shared by his synagogue’s more than 1,500 congregants, but the emptiness is also physical.
This weekend will be the first time since the establishment of the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation in 1871, and since Jews first settled in Victoria, that the city’s approximately 60 synagogues will be empty for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.
While Jewish communities in Sydney and elsewhere in Australia, as well as the US, London and even locked down Israel, will be able to attend synagogue services this Rosh Hashanah, Victoria’s current Covid-19 restrictions means Melbourne’s 55,000 Jews will be prohibited, among many activities, from religious gatherings.
As a result, the city’s eastern suburbs will play host to a rare sight this weekend: rabbis and Jewish men blowing rams’ horns while standing on suburban street corners.
Ordinarily, the spectacle would attract curious onlookers, and perhaps angry neighbours.
But there won’t be many people out in the streets to stare as rabbi Gabi Kaltmann, from the Ark Centre in Hawthorn East, makes his way through his local streets to blow his shofar, an instrument used for more than 3,000 years, to usher in Rosh Hashanah.
“It saddens me,” St Kilda’s Glasman says of the lockdown, as he looks out at the empty pews where generations of Jewish Australians have sat with their families.
“World Wars I and II didn’t force our doors shut,” he said, telling Guardian Australia he wonders what Sir John Monash, the military commander and engineer who features on Australia’s $100 note, would have thought about the closure. Monash was a regular congregant at the synagogue and served on its board for nine years.
Glasman would normally be spending the morning of Rosh Hashanah preparing the adjacent function hall to house an overflow of congregants, certain the synagogue’s 1,000 capacity would be exceeded.
Most weekly sabbath services attract about 100 people, but Glasman says even non-observant Jews are part of what is normally a 1,500-person crush for Rosh Hashanah.
On Friday, a dejected Glasman sent out a video recording of a sermon to his members to watch online before sundown, when the year officially ends.
Acts of work and using technology are forbidden for the next two days, and families in Melbourne will sit down for dinner with the same people they have eaten with every other night of lockdown.
In addition to the shofar and synagogue services, the New Year is traditionally a time for families to gather for meals and eat specific foods to usher in a sweet new year, such as apples and honey. A round challah is also a typical feature – a bread eaten weekly on the sabbath, but made in the shape of a circle for one week to symbolise the cycle of the year.
The New Year begins a period known as the high holy days, which extend until the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on Monday week.
While most Rosh Hashanah customs are rooted in extending metaphors of a sweet new year and period of beginning, Jews in Melbourne will struggle to differentiate between 5780, the Jewish year that ended at sundown on Friday, and 5781.
To break the tedium of lockdown, and in lieu of a synagogue service, the health department will allow nearly 500 rabbis and volunteers to blow the shofar on street corners on Sunday.
Kaltmann spent time on Friday practising parts of his route, which is limited to a 5km radius from his Hawthorn home. He expects to blow the shofar about 50 times across Hawthorn, Camberwell and Glen Iris, and has energy bars and water bottles prepared for what will be several hours of walking and performance.
On some corners where he will stop there will be only one Jewish resident to hear it.
“It’s the new year, it’s festive and joyous. Everyone wants to hear the shofar even if you’re not religious at all.”
While this is the first time Kaltmann will not be at synagogue for the festival, he is excited about the chance to see community members, even from a distance.
“My job has totally changed, from preaching to being a social worker, chatting with people over the phone every day,” he said.
Having been exposed to the loneliness of congregants, Kaltmann believes synagogues and places of worship will see renewed interest, even from secular Australians when lockdowns are eased, as they will be eager for community in the absence of workplaces.
When small religious gatherings were briefly allowed in between Melbourne’s two lockdowns, Kaltmann said he had a 60% increase in demand for people to attend services and had to turn away congregants who had registered.
“There were people I’d normally see just twice a year, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, who were desperate to come in for a shabbat service.
“I called them up and asked them, ‘what the hell had happened? Have you found god’?”
“They all said ‘no’, they just wanted to see each other, to talk about the footy, and be in the same space as one another.”
Kaltmann, who is the rabbi of a modern orthodox synagogue, also noted the financial impact that being closed over the high holy days will have on synagogues. As it’s the only week of the year most members will come to a service, synagogues rely on membership fees and donations made during the services to fund their yearly operations.
Kaltmann believes his synagogue of about 600 members is facing a shortfall of about $200,000. Guardian Australia spoke to another Melbourne rabbi who believes his synagogue stands to lose closer to half a million dollars, when loss of income from function hall rentals and bar mitzvah ceremonies during lockdowns are taken into account.
While the more religious will be concerned about missing out on praying in groups larger than 10 – the quorum needed for a formal service – most Jews in Melbourne will have been concerned about their dinners.
At her home in Glen Iris, Donna Kallenbach and her husband Paul spent less time preparing their Rosh Hashanah meal than ever before.
Normally hosting a dinner with 30 extended family members on the first night of the festival, and up to 60 friends on the second, on Friday their table was set for them and their three children.
While the family isn’t religiously observant – they don’t keep kosher or observe the sabbath each week – Kallenbach is “devastated” at missing out on hearing the shofar blown in a synagogue with her children, Josh, 16, Adam, 14, and Mia, 9.
On Sunday, Kaltmann will come to the corner of their street, and blow the ram’s horn.
“It’s just a beautiful sound, it connects us to our heritage, to think it’s been heard continuously for so long.”