It was in the cool of a San Francisco evening that Aquarian Minyan’s online maariv began with some dozen people — and a dog — logged on for a video conference service that started with a song and a sharing circle.
Participants described the tribulations, stresses and successes of their daily lives, then said the Shema over crackling computer speakers. It’s how the California lay-led egalitarian community, founded in 1974, is handling life under coronavirus regulations.
“Everything has changed,” said Lorelai Kude of Berkeley, California, the minyan’s administrator. “We will never be the same again.’’
Moving online has been an interesting change for the group, she said. And it’s come with a few technical challenges.
“Our minyan is predominantly elderly people,” said Ms Kude, who writes a monthly column called Astrolojew. “This is a bunch of renewal hippie Jews who started this 46 years ago.”
With a “shelter in place” directive that started in the San Francisco area on March 17 and was extended to the entire state, including the Los Angeles region a few days later, Jewish life in California has moved online.
While closures of public spaces were only instituted in the UK on March 23, in California it has been a fortnight since synagogues and schools have closed, with people allowed to go out only for food shopping or other errands deemed essential.
“For most of our congregants, I think the term whiplash probably applies,” said Rabbi Dara Frimmer, senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles.
At the synagogue, a long low brick expanse of building next to a country club, the 900-family Reform synagogue has moved swiftly to put everything online.
“We quickly – as many places did – jumped online and were ready to go the first week the synagogue closed,” she said.
There are up to four events every day, including traditional blessings from clergy, Torah learning and Shabbat — but also “Mindfulness and Yoga with Cantor Tifani,” on Mondays and “Marriage Therapy during Quarantine hosted by Rabbi Zoë” on Wednesdays.
They’re participating, too, in an online portal called “Jew It At Home” with a number of LA-area synagogues from Malibu to Beverly Hills.
Rabbi Frimmer said that, although California has called for people 65 and older to take extra precautions in isolating themselves, it was hard for her congregants of that age, or even older, to think of themselves as frail.
“Surfing in the morning, hiking at night — this is not the population you think will be felled by anything,” she said.
But the seriousness of the virus for elderly populations changed that. And she had advice for synagogues that were just now closing down: “First and foremost, think about a strategy to reach all of your members and, to the best of your ability, recruit volunteers from your community.”
While larger synagogues like Temple Isaiah have leapt straight into streamed services, virtual schooling and even online b’nai mitzvot, smaller and more niche groups are figuring it out as they go along.
Northern California’s Wilderness Torah is known for their “Passover in the Desert”, where people come together in the dusty plains to fast, pray and light a sacred fire. That, too, has been cancelled.
But how does a group whose mission is to “awaken and celebrate the earth-based traditions of Judaism to nourish the connections between self, community, earth and Spirit” continue without meeting in person?
“We’re all in this together,” said Rabbi Zelig Golden, the group’s founding director. “So Wilderness Torah is going virtual and we’re manoeuvring our community offerings, which are always nature-based and highly connected.”
That means putting classes online while still encouraging people to find meaning and Jewish worship in a relationship with nature, he said. The organisation is offering three online experiences each week, encompassing Torah learning, music, and a nature skills class.
“What’s Jewish about that? Just like everything, Judaism grew out of the natural world,” Rabbi Golden said.
While human connection is essential, “a part of that must be nourished, and can be nourished, by our relationship to the natural world.”
Maintaining that human connection in the face of the isolation of social distancing and the anxiety brought by fear of disease is one of the essential tasks that all Jewish groups in California, from Orthodox to Renewal, are working on.
For Rabbi Frimmer, that is part of the central role of a synagogue, especially in a time of crisis; helping Jews find the space within Judaism that gives them strength as individuals and as a community.
“Historically, she said, “we are only able to go through the wild if we do so together.”