Borehamwood shapes up busily to virtual life

The United Synagogue's biggest congregation has sprung into action with a raft of activities and assistance


On Tuesday night, around 100 households from Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue took part in an online quiz to raise money for foodbanks.

Like congregations up and down the land, the United Synagogue’s largest, with more than 4,000 souls, is adjusting to the challenges of the times and running religious, education and social activities virtually.

“We responded very quickly,” said BES senior rabbi Alex Chapper, “and regrouped in terms of what we organise.

“People more than ever want to be connected with their local community. For the past couple of weeks, for example, we’ve done a live havdalah online. People are pleased to see others they know.”

Its “Coronacall” service offers support to some 300 families. “In winter, we do phone-arounds to those who are elderly, infirm and housebound. Now these have been extended to anyone who falls under the government’s definition of vulnerable.”

Food parcels for Pesach are being prepared for those unable to make it to the shops.

“We’ve also set up a group called Virtual Minyannaires,” Rabbi Chapper revealed. “Although we can’t daven in a minyan, we’re encouraging everyone to pray at home at the same time, which maintains that sense of community. The community that prays together, stays together.”

After prayer time on Monday and Thursday mornings, Rabbi Chapper livestreams a memorial prayer for those who have Yarhzeit — and on Thursday a prayer for those who are unwell. On Sunday, the plan is to stream its first shacharit service with the recitation of Psalms said in times of distress.

Some congregants have already lost relatives from the virus.

As part of his encouragement of “home-shuling”, he has “emailed pre-recorded sermons with the text so members can view it before Shabbat or read it out during Shabbat”.

The shul is also transferring its post-shul Shabbat session “Community Stories” — featuring members’ interesting personal or professional pursuits — to online during the week.

In addition, technology is bringing people together for life cycle events. Its first online barmitzvah on a Thursday night attracted some 5,000 views; a second has followed and a batmitzvah is scheduled for Sunday.

Shivahs now have to be streamed. “People have said how difficult it is not to have a shivah,” Rabbi Chapper reported. “The loss is compounded by the fact they have not been able to be among people.”

Over video-link, there will be a ma’ariv service without Kaddish, as a virtual minyan does not count. Either he or a member of the family will speak.

“People have found it difficult to accept they can’t say Kaddish. I’ve explained the Chief Rabbi himself is not saying Kaddish. They shouldn’t see it as they have not fulfilled their duty.”

More happily, the community’s virtual programme has tried to lift spirits with a cocktail-making demonstration and is due to feature two speakers from Israel — Professor Nir-Paz Ran, an expert in infectious diseases from Hadassah Medical Hospital, and Israel’s best-known food writer Gil Hovav.

“It’s opened our eyes to the possibility of how much can be done virtually,” Rabbi Chapper said.

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