The benefits of Zoom Judaism are too good to lose

'While many in the community seem to be waiting eagerly for synagogues to re-open, I’ve rather enjoyed Zoom shul. I may even be a Zoom Jew.'

July 02, 2020 11:47

It’s become our Friday-afternoon ritual.

Every week, we set up a computer in the kitchen and let the dulcet tones of Chazan Avromi Freilich of Norrice Lea synagogue waft through the room, as he sings his way through the Kabbalat Shabbat service and we put the finishing touches to our roast potatoes and chicken soup. We usually hum along in Edgware while Chazan Freilich dances round his house in Golders Green.

It’s become one of the highlights of our week and I’m going to miss it desperately now that the coronavirus crisis seems to be winding down and communal life gradually returns to “normal”.

You see, while many in the community seem to be waiting eagerly for synagogues to re-open, I’ve rather enjoyed Zoom shul. I may even be a Zoom Jew.

Zoom has made synagogue events more accessible for me in every way. Not only can I easily access different services that I would normally never make in person, I’ve logged into services and programmes by different shuls and groups — even joining an event in my father’s shul in Florida. Although I haven’t participated in any Shabbat-morning services, I’ve probably attended as much shul over the past three months as I’ve ever done and, by bringing these moments right into my home, it feels a more organic part of my life.

But the main attraction is how up-and-close I feel to the action on Zoom. Possibly for the first time ever, I can always easily see and hear the chazan, who is normally hidden behind a mechitzah and often remote. The same goes for the virtual barmitzvahs I’ve attended. Zoom has been the great equaliser. It’s ironic, I’ve felt like less of a spectator on Zoom than I ever did in shul “proper”.

And that’s why the services have felt every bit as real, as spiritual and as significant for me as normal attendance. Actually, being able to shut myself in my home office and sing along to a service in complete relaxation and privacy has sometimes had a meditative quality, which I’ve found in shul only rarely. Plus, there’s no dressing up or small talk. I like it.

Now, I can hear you crying — “But it’s not real! It’s just Zoom! And it has no halachic significance.” And that’s all true — although right now, when I conduct meetings all day on video conference, it feels pretty real to me. Given that my denomination doesn’t count me for a minyan, I don’t see what difference it makes if I attend services on Zoom. Many of those who sneer that this is a pale imitation of the “real thing” come from a privileged, insider’s experience of shul which, as an Orthodox woman, has never been mine.

The challenge for shuls, as we return to normal, is that just like me, many congregants have experienced — and enjoyed — different forms of worship over the past few months. Many United Synagogue members, for example, have doubtless logged into Progressive shul services on Shabbat. Some will have liked what they saw. Others — like my husband —have participated in “garden minyanim” (fully complying with social distancing rules) and discovered that praying in a small, intimate group in nature was inspirational. Zoom services have probably been a revelation to many people in remote communities, the elderly, disabled and young mothers who might find it hard to get to shul physically.

Tempting them back into big, impersonal cathedral shuls is going to be a challenge — and they might find their experience disappointing if and when they do return. The biggest mistake shuls could make is to revert reflexively to the way things used to be done, pre-corona. This is a chance to rethink and re-imagine the synagogue experience, finding creative ways to preserve what’s best about coronavirus worship, like the accessibility, inclusiveness, informality and even intimacy.

Synagogues — many of which have been losing members hand-over-fist for decades — should grab this chance to correct course, before they lose a new generation whose expectations have been changed by the lockdown experience and who are now completely out of the habit of going to a physical shul regularly. A good start would be to keep Avromi’s virtual Friday-night service going.

July 02, 2020 11:47

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