(June 18, 2020 / JNS) Cantor Levi Cohen was looking forward to a beachfront Sabbath services in the Hamptons, scheduled months ahead of time. Instead, he found himself in his three-bedroom flat, surrounded by paintings of a beach scene in Italy, singing and dancing to the camera on his laptop.
To stay relevant in the age of COVID-19, with synagogues across the globe shuttered, Zoom classes and prayer services have become the norm. Reform congregations broadcast their services on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays live, and a recent ruling by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement approved the same.
However, in Orthodox synagogues where congregants do not turn on the lights—or any electrical apparatus, for that matter—from Friday at sundown to after nightfall on Saturday night, events on the computer, are out of the question. Thus, Orthodox synagogues have to become more creative, says Benny Rogosnitzky, cantor at the iconic New York City Park East Synagogue, where he also organizes the prayer services online.
“Zoom has been the greatest challenge to the survival of our synagogues,” says Rogosnitzky about traditional synagogues that cater to many who are not strictly Orthodox Jews, but enjoy attending their services. “When 10 blocks away a temple is connecting to you on Zoom on the Sabbath, why should they join us?”
Still, pre-Sabbath prayer services and sermons are one of the ways that many synagogues have been connecting with congregants and others these past three months under coronavirus lockdowns.
“The Zoom events are an imperfect way of staying connected,” says Andy Wells, an attorney from Greenwich, Conn., who attends the weekly pre-Sabbath Zoom with Chabad of Greenwich. “This fills that void of there being no synagogue. I find it as a pleasant transition from the week to Shabbat and I look forward to it every week.”
For Cohen, there are some advantages to Zoom services, which he usually does for different crowds, topping some 300 viewers weekly. “It is very family-oriented, with kids and grandparents joining in.”
He says that Zoom events brought down the barrier that synagogues have between the ages, and in Orthodox synagogues, the genders in families. Couples will stand side by side with their children, and join together in singing and even dancing to Cohen’s melodies. (On One Zoom event, a man in jest held a partition between him and his wife.)
Rogosnitzky concurs, saying that was the plus of undertaking this with the school—the children participate in the event. They also do candle-lighting, which became very meaningful for many, he affirms: “It is inspirational, the world is so dark, and message is that we are alive, we are happening.”
In a synagogue, says Cohen, worshippers and religious leaders alike face the ark. But via Zoom, those directing services can see the feedback from the community, making it a very rewarding experience. In addition, he says, being able to use his guitar has brought a new flavor to the services, something he has never been able to do on the Sabbath itself.
‘I don’t use fatigue as the excuse’
On the West Coast, Rabbi Gershon Albert at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, Calif., thinks that the musical aspect of the Zoom experience will transfer to the Orthodox Friday-night experience. “In the past, I was reluctant to us instruments,” he says, “because it is not in the spirit of Shabbat. Now that it was ruled that it was OK if we start before Shabbat, I would consider doing it in the future.”
Still, he counters, the reason why the members at his congregation, many of whom are secular, choose to join them is because of the Orthodox experience. “Shabbat is about getting away from screens after an entire week on computers and smartphones,” he says, “Now we are logging on to do ‘Lecha Dodi.’ ”
At Park East, Rogosnitzky agrees on that point. With Zoom, a certain ambiance of the synagogue is missing—after all, “you could be coming out of a bathtub and watching services,” he quips. He does, however, say that for the interim, instruments have helped bring people into the spirit.
Still, his view is that when the main threat of the coronavirus has passed, “we will not necessarily we need them like we need them now.”
While instruments have been one way to keep the crowd coming, Hadas Fruchter, founder of the South Philadelphia Shtiebel, says it takes much effort to keep everyone engaged on Zoom. She makes an effort to greet every person that joins by their name and make the message to each one individual “to humanize the experience.”
But she as well as others acknowledged a certain “Zoom fatigue.” Something that appeared to be a sound solution at first—and it was and still has been—is getting old.
Yisroel Pekar, a parenting coach in Brooklyn, N.Y., concurs, saying that at first, he was excited to join the weekly sermon that the rabbi of his synagogue would deliver on Zoom. “However, being all week on the computer, and then going back on the computer, just wasn’t spiritually fulfilling.”
He notes that his synagogue will be opening, and he looks forward to listening to the actual sermon.
In Connecticut, Wells says that going back to live services even with the synagogue opening outdoors for the summer is not an option at this time for him and many others.
Attendance to Zoom services, he says, is like everything in life, at first exciting and then needs a boost. “I don’t use fatigue as the excuse; some mornings I wake up and want to pray, and some mornings, it is a struggle. The same is with business.”
‘I cannot wait to see them in person’
While the effects of COVID-19 on the future of synagogue life are still up in the air, most say that Zoom and online services is a thing that will stay for a long time, if not for eternity.
“It certainly gives a chance for those who are alone and can’t get to services to connect,” says Aviva Zobin of Ner Yisrael Community, a synagogue in the London suburb of Hendon. “I imagine it will continue when we open.”
In Philadelphia, Fruchter says that it is only ethical for those who cannot come, for whatever reason, at synagogue itself to being given the opportunity to join at least virtually, when permitted, under Jewish law. “We are going to keep providing both,” she says.
Rogosnitzky differs a bit, saying Zoom services are “far second to actually being at services.”
Being in synagogue, he notes, has a spirit to it—looking at the ark and physically being next to others. “Peoples are yearning to come back to synagogue. I don’t see Zoom as competition to the synagogue experience; I see it as a vehicle to keep the connection during this time.”
Albert is more cautious of the future, saying he is curious to see what will happen when the doors open again. “Who will feel comfortable, and who won’t feel comfortable? I think that there is a craving for synagogue, but I think there will be some fear, and some may just choose to stay home.”
For Fruchter’s small congregation, Zoom has brought new people to their events who might have been nervous to join a traditional experience in person. She believes they are relieved, have warmed up and might just become regulars.
“I am so excited for the moment we return to synagogue,” she practically gushes. “I cannot wait to see them in person, I cannot wait to invite for Shabbat dinner. I cannot wait to just greet them and give them a hug.”
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