Part One of OUR PANDEMIC YEAR, a week-long series examining how the Covid pandemic has changed our local Jewish world.
Rabbi Mark Bloom stood behind a clear plastic partition outside Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland with a guitar strapped to his shoulder. A small digital camera attached to a mic stand pointed at him from about 6 feet away, and two light panels flanked him on either side, creating a soft spotlight as the sun set on a recent Friday. About a dozen worshippers, all wearing masks, settled into folding chairs carefully spaced around the courtyard.
With everything in place, volunteer Josh Mailman, sitting in the back behind a laptop and a tablet controlling camera shots and sound, wordlessly pointed at the rabbi, giving him the signal. Action.
If someone had described this Kabbalat Shabbat scene prior to March of last year, it would have sounded utterly strange. Yet this hybrid service — which was conducted March 5 both in-person and streamed to hundreds online — is just one example of how the Jewish community has adapted to the utterly strange circumstances it has faced over the past year.
It may also provide a clue as to how American Jewish religious practice and synagogue life will change for good, even after the community is fully vaccinated and the dust settles on what has been a devastating public health crisis.
“The digital revolution was put on steroids by Covid,” said historian Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University and the author of “American Judaism: A History.” “Zoom is part of it. It’s going to be a major change. And it will long outlast the pandemic.”
Speaking to J. recently, Sarna offered a historical comparison; a temporary upheaval that led to a permanent cultural shift in the Jewish community.
Before World War II, it was customary for London’s Jews, such as his grandfather Jacob Sarna, to wear top hats in shul. In light of German bombing campaigns, rabbis advised congregants to leave their formal headwear at home “because if you had to run into a shelter, a top hat was very inconvenient,” Sarna said.
After the war ended and the bombings stopped, the top hat rarely came back, save for synagogue presidents and other high-level dignitaries. Jacob, for one, “stopped wearing his top hat in 1939 and never resumed,” his grandson said.
In conversations with a number of Bay Area rabbis — whose synagogues are in various stages of reopening but for whom services are still almost entirely online — a picture emerged that reflects and expands on Sarna’s view: While certain elements of our pandemic year are best left behind us (social and physical isolation, bans on singing, etc.), others, like the ability to make services and lifecycle events available to anyone anywhere, are here to stay.
In non-Orthodox communities that do not forbid using technology on Shabbat, Jewish leaders are recognizing the power of video streaming and the likelihood that it has cemented its place in Jewish religious life.
Rabbi Mordecai Miller of egalitarian Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa offered a full-throated endorsement of Zoom services, describing his shul’s streaming operation, after some early hiccups, as “a well-oiled machine.”
A handful of congregants were skeptical of attending services online, but most figured out how to use the technology and now tune in regularly.
“The truth is, having a Zoom platform means people can see each other, and hear each other’s voices, and chat,” he said. “We have absolutely created a Zoom community.”
Miller hopes that people will be able to gather physically in the sanctuary during the High Holidays. And that after the pandemic, services on Shabbat morning, for example — which involve Torah readings and the pomp and circumstance that accompany them — will remain live. But small services on Friday nights?
“It’s possible we’ll do it once a month, physically,” he said. “Otherwise we’ll continue to do it virtually.”
Even before the pandemic, many synagogues offered some form of video streaming — an extension of old telephone “call-in” services — geared mainly toward older synagogue members who couldn’t make it in person. Few came with the production value seen today, as many synagogues are using audio-visual experts, and the streams were one-way, not interactive.
“We’ve had a webcam at the synagogue for probably 20 years,” said Rabbi Daniel Stein of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek. “But I think people are becoming accustomed to the two-way nature of Zoom.”
These days, all services at B’nai Shalom are conducted over Zoom and virtual attendance at some evening programs has “increased dramatically” over in-person numbers, Stein said.
He and other synagogue leaders have been thinking hard about how they will use streaming after the pandemic — recognizing its benefits as well as some of its limitations. For one, Stein said, while Jewish communities on the West Coast are known for being welcoming, casual and informal, sometimes the casualness engendered by streaming took it to a whole new level.
“I think it led to some awkwardness,” the rabbi said politely.
“The act of preparing for synagogue lends itself to the moment, in a certain sense,” he added. “I would never have a cup of coffee in the sanctuary, for instance. But at morning minyan in my house, I might have my coffee with me.”
He said he’s sure that streaming will play a permanent role moving forward; it’s just a matter of figuring out how and when to employ it.
“One thing that’s been really interesting for us has been shivas,” he said. “We can’t visit people, and be with friends and family in the way that we normally would, [but] the ability to reconnect across geographical boundaries has been very powerful.
“I would imagine in the future, we’ll have at least one [night of] shiva online,” he added. “Probably forever.”
Using Zoom and other streaming platforms has presented “a wonderful opportunity for us to think outside the box,” said Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf, senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. Among the shul’s innovations during the pandemic: an online speakers series called “A Conversation from the Front Line,” which largely features Covid-19 topics with prominent, mostly local medical professionals but also has included newsmakers such as San Francisco Mayor London Breed and District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
“Zoom has allowed us to have people who would have been much harder to schedule … in person,” Graf said.
The shul also started a “learner’s service” on the first Shabbat of the month, and is holding weekly Torah study at 9:15 a.m. on Saturday mornings before services.
Still, even as rabbis are working to fold streaming naturally into synagogue life, many are reflecting on the limits of screens when it comes to the more intangible benefits of gathering to pray, celebrate or mourn.
No rabbi is expecting Jewish religious worship to go entirely, or even mostly, virtual. After all, etymologically, the word synagogue means to “bring together” and the word congregation speaks for itself.
For Graf, continuing to meet in person during the pandemic has been essential, and will remain so. Like other rabbis, she has been leading some socially-distanced, masked, “indoor/outdoor” lifecycle events, such as weddings, baby namings and funerals, in addition to streamed Shabbat and holiday services.
“It feels necessary to be with people during lifecycle moments,” she said, mentioning small graveside funerals, which sometimes “felt even more meaningful with a tiny group — acknowledging the reason that we’ve gathered is so important.
“The obligation to bury the dead with dignity remains, regardless of the pandemic,” she said.
Graf acknowledged that there are pros and cons to streaming and video conferencing. Echoing Stein, she said shiva gatherings on Zoom have “felt expansive,” with people from all over the country and the world able to participate.
But “there’s a certain sadness,” too, she said, and a sense of loss. As one attendee said recently to a mourner: “I wish I could feed you.”
Rabbi Stephanie Kramer of Reform Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa said the pandemic has “accelerated shifts that were naturally happening within society.”
Before the pandemic, her synagogue offered live feeds “because a large part of our congregation is older, and they had trouble getting to temple all of the time,” she said. During the pandemic “we have upped our technological game [considerably] to make sure the viewing experience is good.
“We’ve gotten a lot better at streaming services now,” she said. “And I can’t imagine we’ll ever not stream services.”
For Sarna, though the pandemic has upended our lives in ways that would have been difficult to imagine, he cautioned against predicting synagogue life will change too dramatically. He recalled a second historical comparison, from 1920 at the end of the Spanish Flu pandemic, one that was deadlier than what we are living through today.
That year, Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding ran on a slogan he thought would appeal to the masses — “return to normalcy” — and he was right.
“Certainly there was a sense [that] people were eager to go back to what they had known,” Sarna said.
“In some ways, human nature will guide us back together very quickly,” Graf said.
But , she added, with the success of web-based offerings, “people have come to love our congregation who live far away, on other continents and countries, cities and states.
“We want to continue to have our community be defined broadly, while also creating a warm environment for in-person gathering.”