We have now finished our second consecutive cycle of High Holidays under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, unlike last, plenty of grandparents were able to hug their grandkids, thanks to vaccines. In-person gatherings were possible in different forms, including synagogue services.
The overarching crisis represented by the pandemic coincidentally occurs at a time when Jewish communal leaders are expressing growing concerns about declining levels of affiliation, especially among younger Jews. Polls (criticized by some for their methods) suggest a steep drop-off in support for Israel among American Jews. And there are worries, expressed by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, among others, of increasing estrangement between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
Yet, there is almost not a single person involved in Jewish life who will not acknowledge some silver linings in this terrible time. It is human nature to almost instantly take for granted what we have. The sudden omnipresence of platforms like Zoom would have been a sci-fi dream 25 years ago. Educators, rabbis and Jewish organizations made an almost instantaneous shift to virtual events at the start of the pandemic. This, it turned out, served not only existing “audiences” (students, congregants, members) but entirely new faces. People who, due to geography, had no access to Hebrew classes
are studying virtually. British Columbians are scanning options and joining lectures, recitals, panel discussions and standup comedy routines, and more, streaming from New York, London, Cape Town and Tel Aviv. Services and programs generally offered to the Vancouver community are welcoming new attendees, unlimited by geography.
Early on, behavioural scientists predicted a phenomenon of being “Zoomed out.” But a Canadian opinion poll suggested just the opposite. We love Zoom. It allows us to attend a one-hour lecture without the 40-minute commute, the parking and the umbrella-shaking. Of course, it is not the same. We miss the kibitzing and other niceties of an in-person event, but it is pretty darn fantastic under the circumstances.
Jews produce a vast amount of what is now dryly called “content” … the written word, visual and performing arts, music, science, intellectual pursuits. And it is available in almost every language on the planet – to anyone with a device and access to the internet. The potential this holds to bring together Jews (or, of course, any people) in ways that were not previously imaginable opens entire new worlds of connection.
As we return incrementally to a life more like the before times, we should not cast off the necessities that became welcome additions. Rather than revert to in-person-only gatherings, many groups and events are already adopting hybrid approaches. Those who enjoy the in-person form can participate, but so can those far away or who are strapped for time.
If we now have moments to reflect on the lessons of the past year-and-a-half, we should consider the power of the technologies that have become so common. How can the unifying power of these tools be mobilized to address the problems of division we face as a community? Can a concerted effort to bring together Israelis and Diaspora Jews in remote dialogue help build bridges? Could a centralized schedule of Jewish educational and cultural offerings from around the world expose Jews everywhere to a wider range of opportunities to engage in ways that are meaningful to them? Could a renaissance of Jewish ideas and discussion spring forth thanks to the technology we have become used to during this troubled time?
Can Zoom save the Jews? Well, there are many challenges facing our communities in Israel, Canada and around the world. A simple fix is never going to resolve all the concerns about falling engagement, estrangement between parts of Am Yisrael or the host of issues that our communal leaders have been focused on for decades. But neither should we underestimate the powerful force for good that a simple tool like Zoom has to bring together people who might never otherwise meet.
As a tradition, Judaism has thrived by adapting, while holding fast to customs and ritual. Zoom is now a part of this mix. While it is not perfect – it is not suitable for all denominations to stream on Shabbat or holidays, for example – it holds the potential to continue to connect us even when we are no longer constrained by health restrictions from getting together in person.
Zoom presentations became a regular affair at Beth Israel during the pandemic. Inset: JFS director of programs and community partnerships Cindy McMillan provides an overview of the new Jewish Food Bank. (screenshot from BI & JFS)
As Vancouver-area synagogues cautiously edge their way toward reinstituting in-person religious services, many rabbis are doing a rethink about the impact that the past 17 months of closure has had on their congregations.
Finding a way to maintain a community connection for thousands of Jewish families became an imperative for all of the synagogues early on in the pandemic. Not surprisingly, for many, the answer became cutting-edge technology. But careful brainstorming and halachic deliberations remained at the heart of how each congregation addressed these urgent needs.
“We immediately realized that services per se were not going to work over electronic medium,” Congregation Schara Tzedeck’s Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt told the Independent.
He said Orthodox rabbis across the world were already discussing halachah (Jewish law) in light of the pandemic when the province of British Columbia announced the shutdown in March of last year. “We realized that we weren’t going to offer any services,” he said. “We can’t have a minyan online.”
But that didn’t mean they couldn’t offer support. Schara Tzedeck’s answer to that need was only one of many innovative approaches that would come up. For example, to help congregants who had lost family members, the Orthodox shul devised a new ritual, as the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish requires a minyan (10 men or 10 men and women, depending on the level of orthodoxy, gathered together in one physical location).
“What we did is immediately [start a Zoom] study session in lieu of Kaddish. [The Mourner’s] Kaddish is based on this idea of doing a mitzvah act, which is meritorious for the sake of your loved one, so we substituted the study of Torah for the saying of Kaddish,” he explained.
For many other communities, such as the Conservative synagogue Congregation Beth Israel, the deliberations over how to apply halachah in unique moments such as these were just as intense. For these instances, said BI’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, rabbis saw another imperative.
“This is what is called she’at had’chak, or a time of pressure,” Infeld said. “It’s a special time, it’s a unique time, and so we adapted to the time period.”
The concept allows a reliance on less authoritative opinions in urgent situations. So, for example, with respect to reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, Infeld said, “We felt that, especially in this time period, people would need that emotional connection, or would need that emotional comfort of saying Mourner’s Kaddish when they were in mourning, and so we have not considered this [internet gathering to be] a minyan, except for Mourner’s Kaddish,” Infeld said. He noted that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, which reviews halachic decisions for the Conservative movement, has adopted the same position.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay, who leads the Orthodox Sephardi synagogue Congregation Beth Hamidrash, said that although his congregation would not hold Mourner’s Kaddish online, venues like Zoom played a vital role in allowing the congregation to meet during shivah, the first seven days of mourning. Like a traditional shivah, which takes place in the mourner’s home, often with a small number of visitors, an online shivah gave community members a chance to attend and extend support as well.
“That was actually an especially meaningful [opportunity],” Gabay said. “The mourners, one after another, told me that, first of all, you don’t often get the opportunity to have so many people in the room, all together, listening.”
For members of the Bayit Orthodox congregation in Richmond, an online shivah meant family on the other side of the country could attend as well. “What was most interesting, of course, was the people from all across the world,” remarked Rabbi Levi Varnai. “You can have people who are family, friends, cousins, from many places in the world, potentially.”
Vancouver’s Reform Congregation Temple Sholom also came to value the potential of blending online media with traditional venues. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz said the congregation had been streaming its services and classes as much as a decade before the pandemic arrived. But lifecycle events, he said, demanded a more personal approach, one that would still allow families to actually participate in reading from the Torah scroll, while not violating the restrictions on large public attendance.
“The big change is that we brought Torah to everybody’s home,” he said. Literally. Moskovitz or his associate, Rabbi Carey Brown, would deliver the scroll in a large, specially fitted container, along with a prayer book, instructions and other necessary accoutrements.
“We had a document camera so, when we streamed, you could look down on the Torah as it was being read on screen. Those were very special moments on a front porch when I would deliver Torah, socially distanced with a mask on, early on in the pandemic,” he said. “I had a mask and I had rubber gloves and they had a mask, and you put something down and you walked away. We got a little more comfortable with service transmission later on.”
Switching to online media also has broadened the opportunities for classes and social connections. Infeld said Beth Israel moved quickly to develop a roster of classes as soon as it knew that there would be a shutdown.
“We realized right away that we can’t shut down. We may need to close the physical building, but the congregation isn’t the building. The congregation is the soul [of Beth Israel]. We exist with or without the building,” he said. “And we realized that for us to make it through this time period in a strong way, and to emerge even stronger from it, we would have to increase our programming.”
He said the synagogue’s weekly Zoom and Learn program has been among its most popular, hosting experts from around the world and garnering up to 100 or more viewers each event. The synagogue also hosts a mussar (Jewish ethics) class that is regularly attended. “We never had a daily study session,” Infeld said. “Now we [do].”
For Chabad centres in the Vancouver area, virtual programming has been a cornerstone of success for years and they have expanded their reach, even during the pandemic. “We have had more classes and more lectures than ever before, with greater attendance,” said Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, who runs Chabad Richmond.
Zoom and other online mediums mean that the centres don’t have to fly in presenters if they want to offer an event. Like other synagogues, Chabad Richmond can now connect their audiences directly with experts from anywhere in the world.
“We can’t go back”
All of the synagogues that were contacted for this story acknowledged that online media services had played an important role in keeping their communities connected. And most felt that they will continue to use virtual meeting spaces and online streaming after the pandemic has ended.
“As our biggest barrier to Friday night participation was the fact that many families were trying to also fit in a Shabbat dinner with small children, the convenience of the Friday livestream is worth including in the future,” said Rabbi Philip Gibbs, who runs the North Shore Conservative synagogue Congregation Har El.
“We’re scoping bids to instal a Zoom room in our classroom space so that we can essentially run a blended environment,” Rosenblatt said. “We anticipate, when restrictions are lifted, some people will still want to participate by Zoom and some people will want to be in person.”
However, some congregations remain undecided as to whether Zoom will remain a constant in their services and programming.
Rabbi Susan Tendler said that the virtual meeting place didn’t necessarily mesh with all aspects of Congregation Beth Tikvah’s Conservative service, such as its tradition of forming small groups (chavurot) during services. “We are talking about what that will look like in the future,” she said, “yet realize that we must keep this door open.”
So is Burquest Jewish Community Association in Coquitlam, which is looking at hybrid services to support those who can’t attend in person. “But these activities will probably not be a major focus for us going forward,” said board member Dov Lank.
For Or Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation, developing ways to bolster classes, meditation retreats and other programs online was encouraging. Rabbi Hannah Dresner acknowledged that, if there were another shutdown, the congregation would be able to “make use of the many innovations we’ve conceived and lean into our mastery of virtual delivery.”
For a number of congregations, virtual services like Zoom appear to offer an answer to an age-old question: how to build a broader Jewish community in a world that remains uncertain at times and often aloof.
The Bayit’s leader, Rabbi Varnai, suggests it’s a matter of perspective. He said finding that answer starts with understanding what a bayit (home) – in this case, a Jewish house of worship – is meant to be.
The Bayit, he said, is “a place for gathering community members and for coming together. The question, how can we still be there for each other, causes us to realize that we can’t go back to as before.” After all, he said, “community service is about caring for each other.”
Jan Lee’s articles, op-eds and blog posts have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism, Times of Israel and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
I was introduced to the Sephardi and Mizrahi tradition of a Rosh Hashanah seder by a dear friend, at whose home I celebrate most of the Jewish holidays. This New Year’s, given the pandemic and that we are not in each other’s immediate bubble, I will join their seder on the first night of Rosh Hashanah either outdoors, weather permit, I was looking, perhaps, to prepare myself mentally for this year’s socially distanced gathering, and a Zoom with my family in Ontario, when I thought of the idea for the cover, which is created using watercolour and ink (and surprisingly little Photoshop).
In a Sephardi or Mizrahi seder, special dishes are served of specific foods whose Hebrew or Aramaic names are linked in a blessing to another word that has the same root letters. Puns flourish. So, for example, the Hebrew word for carrot and that for decree have different vowels but the same root letters – gimel, zayin and resh – and the blessing over the carrots translates as, “May it be your will, Lord our God, that that our bad decrees be torn up and our merits and blessings be proclaimed.” The word for leeks, chives or scallions – karti – is akin to yikartu, cut off, so the blessing over these vegetables is, “May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be cut off.”
Spinach or beet leaves also symbolize the hope that God will make our enemies retreat and we can “beat” a way to freedom. Dates carry the hope that hatred will end; the many seeds of a pomegranate that our mitzvot will be many; an apple that we will have a sweet year; string beans that our merits will increase; a pumpkin or gourd that God will “tear” away all evil edicts against us, while our merits are proclaimed. You get the idea.