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.