What does a Shabbat service look like with no congregants? How does one study Torah via a computer screen and a video link? This week, as people hunkered down in the Greater Phoenix area amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many synagogues had to find out.
“Everyone’s staying connected, that’s the goal,” said Rabbi Micah Caplan of Congregation Or Tzion. “The goal is to have a connection for everybody and to have different outlets that we can provide for people who really are yearning for some prayer and happiness and community. Those are the things I think that people are looking for.”
Congregation Or Tzion started livestreaming services on Friday night and Saturday mornings, as well as Thursday’s minyan. The synagogue also offers videos and a weekly blog to help members stay connected.
“These are the times that we’re living in, but we’re very grateful that we have technology like this,” Caplan said. “Even though physically we are separated by social distancing, we’re still united as a group spiritually and emotionally. It might feel eerie or strange because the room is empty, but the room is full, because we know everybody’s there. Everyone’s there watching and everyone is there participating.”
Debbie Blyn, executive director of Temple Chai, said that even before the synagogue became virtual only, many regular congregants were already making the choice to stay home and participate via livestream.
“The world has changed dramatically this week. I think by last week, we all saw it coming, but it has changed dramatically,” she said. “It’s very frightening, and it’s not a place any of us want to be.”
Temple Chai has been livestreaming services for over a year — “that is very much part of our culture now,” Blyn said. Nevertheless, when the synagogue recorded a message from Rabbi Mari Chernow and Cantor Ross Wolman on Monday, March 16, Blyn said the room didn’t feel the same without the congregation present.
“It’s the first time I can remember us ever streaming something that had nobody in the room. It felt very, very different,” Blyn said. “We’ve gotten good feedback and we had a lot of engagement, but it’s a very, very different type of engagement.”
Nevertheless, Blyn said Temple Chai will continue to share content to help community members stay engaged.
“We’re going to be regularly putting stuff out like that to engage with our community and as a way for our clergy — even though they can’t connect one on one — to help people with the spiritual nourishment that they need and engage with our kids as well,” Blyn said.
In the midst of the shift to online learning, Temple Emanuel of Tempe is installing livestreaming abilities for the first time as well as using other online tools to connect. The clergy made a video for Erev Shabbat that was shared via email and Facebook, and Saturday morning Torah study will be available by Zoom.
“We’re experimenting right now. We’re testing different formats, seeing what resonates with people and what they respond to, what they’re looking for,” said Gerri Chizeck, managing director of Temple Emanuel. “We’re using combinations of social media and Zoom and streaming — whatever we can to communicate and stay connected.”
She said congregants are responding well, but “everybody has a different level of comfort with technology.”
“We’re all in it together, experimenting together,” Chizeck said. “I read something that really resonated with me, which was we need to be patient with one another and ourselves as we go through this uncharted territory together and know that not everything will work perfectly and that we will support each other in doing what we can and getting to the level that we wish to.”
Congregation Beth Tefillah has also moved its services and classes online, with a virtual prayer service twice a day and classes for adults and children. The synagogue is using Facebook, Zoom and YouTube to reach its congregants and on March 22, it launched CBT Virtual World, a website that hosts online activities and classes as well as a virtual counseling platform.
Rabbi Pinchas Allouche kicked off the online learning program with a class on “Controlling our anxieties and navigating through uncertain times” on Wednesday, March 18. He said there are both pros and cons to the new format.
“It feels different on multiple levels. First, when you’re in a room full of people, I think most people can sense the energy in the room or even becoming tuned with the body language of people, and that does not exist on a device, on Zoom, on any type of virtual class. So it’s harder on that level to connect to people,” Allouche said.
“On the other hand, I think that we are forced to listen more in an online class, to connect more with one another because of the technological limitation. It in a way deepens our understanding of the subject and even our connection with one another, because it forces us to make an extra effort so to speak, to really be in tune with the class itself and with the participants of the class.”
Overall, the rabbi is hopeful that online ways of learning and connecting will broaden the ways in which people are able to relate.
“Generally speaking, I think people should be looking for a new language that they will learn, a new way of connecting that will expand their horizon in general,” Allouche said. “I think it could be the beginning of a new era in Jewish learning, in Jewish connection and in spirituality in general, where people learn to speak multiple languages to one another and to God. And a language that is not just physical but a language that is virtual, a language that is emotional, a language that is heart to heart and soul to soul.”
On Wednesday, March 18, Ahavas Torah announced that the shul would be closed until further notice. In a letter to the community on Thursday, March 19, 10 Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Ariel Shoshan of Ahavas Torah, announced the closing of all shuls and shared guidelines for staying home, postponing simchas and canceling all minyanim and gatherings.
“The magnitude of this decision should impress upon every member of our community the seriousness of the situation. Life cannot proceed as usual, significant lifestyle changes must be made,” the rabbinic statement said. “At the same time, this is our opportunity to respond as Jews should under such difficult circumstances and proceed with the comfort of knowing that we are fulfilling the will of Hashem.”
All classes at Ahavas Torah, including the twice daily Daf Yomi class, a daily class based on the Chofetz Chaim’s teachings on the power of speech and a weekly class on Nesivos Shalom, have moved online using Zoom. The Torah center’s first Zoom class on Thursday, March 19, had over 75 participants, and on Sunday the synagogue held its first virtual story time.
“With thanks to G-d, a Jewish person can live his essential Jewish life under all conditions. The home has always been the primary sanctuary of Jewish life and for the time being we have now brought even more Torah learning and prayer into its holy walls,” wrote Shoshan in an email. “Although nothing can replace being together, computers are helping us for sure. We have already had some experience with this, as last summer we recorded video messages in our ‘Summer Spirituality’ series to help our community stay connected while many were traveling.”
Shoshan also emphasized the importance of using technology not only to study, but to stay connected.
“An important element besides learning is making sure that people who are stuck perhaps at home alone or in small groups don’t feel isolated,” Shoshan said. “Our get-togethers will focus sometimes on just being together and making sure that everyone is OK.”
Temple Kol Ami held its first livestreamed Shabbat service on Saturday, March 14. The synagogue has had the ability to livestream for about a year and a half and previously used the technology to record bar and bat mitzvahs. This is the first time it has shared a public livestream.
While streaming from the empty sanctuary with cantorial soloist Emily Kaye, Rabbi Jeremy Schneider asked congregants to send messages and photos so that he knew they were there throughout the service.
“It was incredible to engage with the congregation in real time and know that they were home. I had people text me pictures of them in their living rooms, or on their parents’ beds, in front of the TV, streaming, feeling very connected,” Schneider said.
“My favorite quote was from a father who texted me that when services started, it was just him on the couch. And by the end of the service, he was joined by his wife and his four daughters and all six of them were sitting there together, enjoying the Shabbat, and that it was a very meaningful experience.”
He emphasized that social distancing doesn’t have to be isolating.
“We can be physically distant, we don’t have to be socially distant,” Schneider said. “We’re all trying to do the best we can to support each other and help each other and be there for each other in our most vulnerable way.”
Caplan advised community members to take advantage of online tools that help the community stay together and support one another.
“My advice would be to find their connection, to find their connection Jewishly,” Caplan said. “Judaism teaches us: Don’t separate yourself from the community. It’s one of those values that’s been around for a long time. Don’t separate yourself from the community, be a part of us, stay connected. That’s what Judaism expects from us: We stay connected no matter what happens to our people.” JN