Rabbi Daniel Stein (top right) leads candle lighting and some songs over Zoom before Shabbat, March 13, 2020. (Screenshot/David A.M. Wilensky)
Rabbi Daniel Stein (top right) leads candle lighting and some songs over Zoom before Shabbat, March 13, 2020. (Screenshot/David A.M. Wilensky)

Shabbat, prayer and religious connection during a pandemic

Around sundown on March 13, Rabbi Daniel Stein of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek gathered with his family and about two dozen congregants to welcome in Shabbat, lighting candles and singing a couple of songs.

They “gathered” not in their synagogue or in someone’s home, but virtually, through the online conferencing platform Zoom. They could all see each other’s faces and hear one another’s voices — but the tiny lag time made singing in unison impossible, and the physical distance made “Good Shabbos” hugs and handshakes impossible.

People expressed appreciation and smiled at the sight of their rabbi and friends, but there still are technological kinks to be worked out.

“We’re going to continue trying to think of ways to connect,” Stein said at the end. “It’s going to be a tough few weeks, but we’re going to make it through together.”

For the foreseeable future — under the threat of the novel coronavirus, the necessity of social distancing and the imposition of shelter-in-place orders — this is Shabbat.

That same evening, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco put on a full Shabbat evening service, streaming it via Facebook Live. Framed closely as they were by the camera, it was almost easy to forget that Rabbis Jason Rodich and Sydney Mintz and Cantor Marsha Attie were otherwise alone in Emanu-El’s cavernous domed main sanctuary.

Facebook “likes” and heart “reacts” floated by as virtual congregants showed their appreciation for each new prayer or song. “Sing out! I promise that wherever you are, we can hear you,” Mintz urged.

During Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for healing, attendees typed in comments with the names of people they were praying for. And throughout the service, congregants commented with their appreciation: “Thank you to all our clergy for making this healing Shabbat available to us. I feel you are there for each of us.” “This is wonderful!!! The kids are dancing to the music!”

At the end, Rodich emphasized, “We are not closed. We are finding new ways to gather.”

And, because some things never change, there were, of course, congregational announcements: Senior Rabbi Jonathan Singer typed a comment reminding people to tune in for Torah study the next morning.

“It was a strange experience, and it was strangely beautiful, too,” Mintz told J. a few days later. “When I lead services, I get my energy from people smiling and clapping, so it was an exercise in creative imagination to reach out and try to feel this sense of hineinu — we’re all here — right now, in this virtual Shabbat.”

Before the service, Mintz, Rodich and Attie said Shehecheyanu together, a prayer said the first time one does something — in this case, it was the first time they had livestreamed a service. And then Mintz said a blessing for the internet.

She also likened it to Purim, which is thought of as topsy-turvy time, when everything is turned on its head. “Purim was ‘canceled’ because of the virus, but it was like it was still going on, everything still upside-down. Normally we ask people to turn their phones off at the beginning of a service, but here we were asking people to turn on a screen just to be a part of the service.”

It’s going to be a tough few weeks, but we’re going to make it through together.

For those who go to synagogue weekly, the coronavirus restrictions are jarring enough — how much more so for those who attend a daily minyan. Marilyn Heiss, who has been attending morning minyan every day at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco for 20 years and often leads part of the service, feels a major disruption. Her father, Seymour Heiss, died in June, so she is still in the one-year period of saying Mourner’s Kaddish for him daily.

Though many synagogues are streaming Shabbat services, fewer are streaming daily minyans.

But Heiss found out that Temple Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles that she previously has been to, is livestreaming their morning minyan every day. It’s halachically dicey, but Beth Am has decided that more than 10 people in attendance virtually is good enough to say Kaddish.

“From my point of view — there were 25 people watching — I would call that a minyan,” Heiss said. “But it has been the weirdest thing.”

Meanwhile, her own shul’s ritual committee was scheduled to meet this week to decide whether and how they will proceed with streaming morning minyan.

Streaming Shabbat services is well and good for some Jews, but that option is not open to Orthodox communities.

As of Thursday of last week, the Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley was still planning to hold Shabbat services, albeit with some modifications: seats spread farther apart, no sermon, no kiddush gathering afterward. But by the next day, synagogue leaders canceled services altogether.

“Once the school district closed in Berkeley, we saw that as an expression of what the public stance is, and it became very clear that if we gathered as a community, it would undermine that effort,” said Beth Israel’s Rabbi Yonatan Cohen.

Though it was an unusual experience for him to be hunkered down at home on a Friday evening rather than in front of his community, Cohen said leading and attending services isn’t the most important part of his job.

“My primary role as a rabbi is behind the scenes most of the time,” he said. “So rabbis teach classes and they give sermons and convene the community on Shabbat, but that’s a limited part of the week. The rest of the week we’re there for people for one-on-one learning and reaching out and pastoral counseling.

“All those things happen all the time, and now due to the circumstances, they’re becoming much more public because it’s becoming the core of the rabbinate and it needs to be communicated publicly. Most parts of my job have become more intensified.”

That’s not to say that Shabbat isn’t important, but that other things are coming to the fore now.

“Shabbat is an essential mitzvah in our week and in our lives, but at this time, our role is to focus on all the other mitzvot that are so pronounced right now, in terms of what it means to be a community. It’s easy to be a community on Shabbat morning, but what does it mean to come together when we can’t be together?

“Everyone who stays home now is performing a mitzvah just by staying home,” Cohen continued. “We’re protecting the health of others, our own health, respecting our elders in profound ways.”

Some of these changes in mentality and way of connection may be permanent, too.

Said Mintz: “When this lifts, it will have irrevocably changed every human being and every community, in how we connect with each other and how we think of connecting virtually.

“But we’ll have to circle back when it’s all over and see how things shake out.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky