A Zoom Havdalah, which was launched just as the country went into lockdown, has just celebrated its 200th service.
The Ark Synagogue, formerly called Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, started a Zoom Havdalah on the first Saturday of lockdown in March 2020, which, since then, has grown to attract participants from Middlesex to Tamil Nadu in India.
The synagogue’s Rabbi Aaron Goldstein said: “This occasion is a weekly source of comfort, care and community that has sustained so many of us, not only during the pandemic but long after it ended.”
He said that due to the range of time-zones, the start time used to shift around, but for ease, they now always hold the service at 5pm GMT, regardless of the time Shabbat strictly ends.
To mark its 200th service, over 100 people joined online service from the UK, Europe, Israel, the United States, South Africa and India.
Rabbi Aaron said: “To be able to celebrate this 200th Zoom Havdalah was very special, but even more so is the large number of people finding such meaning by joining us online each and every week.”
For the 200th service, prayers were led by Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, Rabbi Lea Mühlstein and Emeritus Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein of The Ark, alongside special guest Rabbi David Benjamin from The Ark’s twin congregation in Israel, Kehilat Brit Shalom, and members of The Ark’s Ukrainian twin communities, the Teiva Congregation and the Lutsk Jewish Community.
Two regulars — or “Havdalah menches”, as Rabbi Aaron calls them — are Howard Duckworth and Paul Hyams, who attend even when they are on holiday or on the train.
Paul, who lives in Lincolnshire and is a member of both his local Progressive synagogue and The Ark, has mapped out the locations of those taking part, finding that attendees span more than 16,000 miles.
For Howard, whose granddaughter was born in February 2023, it has become a family affair. He said: “I introduced her to the Havdalah group before she met most of her other family, and she crawls into my sanctuary most Saturdays to wave and is always made welcome, just as her big brother is.
Howard said that original plan to hold a 15-minute service and schmooze for the duration of lockdown had evolved into permanent two-hour long gatherings. “Everyone enjoyed it so much, joining us from the four corners of the world, that it became a fixture.”
Reflecting on the online community the Havdalah service has created, Howard said: “We have sung ‘Happy Birthday’ in five different languages, enjoyed Havdalah on Christmas Day, and held what we believe to be the world’s most spread-out fancy dress party ever. Most importantly, we have made so many new friends who are there to support each other through both sadness and joy.”