By Rabbi Andy Vogel
Shabbat is ultimately about love. It is a sign of the love between God and the Jewish people. It is a time when a loving couple can reconnect with each other. It allows family members who love each other to enjoy each other’s company undistracted by other obligations. The love of Shabbat is expressed throughout the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book in theological terms, and also through the glow of the Shabbat candles on the table.
During this pandemic, rife with anxiety and worry, we need to be nurtured by the love of Shabbat even more.
So, when our congregation, Temple Sinai, in Brookline MA, held “Grandparents, Grandchildren and Special Friends Shabbat” this Fall, a Friday night Shabbat service on Zoom in which all members of our congregation were encouraged to invite family members and special loved ones of all generations, regardless of geographical location, we were expressing a theological message – as well as creating a multi-generational Shabbat experience to enhance our sense of connection with one another using a new medium, all in the context of love.
The instructions were clear enough to our temple members: Invite your grandparents, grandchildren and any other special friends to join us for Erev Shabbat services on Zoom, by sending them the Zoom link for the service. We encouraged everyone joining us to light Shabbat candles and place them close to their camera, if they were Jewish, making clear that all special friends and invitees were invited to join regardless of their religious background.
And it worked: Dozens of relatives and loved ones from all over the country joined us by Zoom to celebrate Shabbat – from Philadelphia, Florida, New Hampshire, and California – sitting at their Shabbat tables with the glow of their candles in the camera’s frame. It was wonderful to see the delight on the faces of older people and younger people alike, waving to their family members, holding up signs of greeting to each other, and singing Shabbat songs and prayers during the service.
Then, after the Mi Sheberach prayer for healing, we invited each Temple Sinai member to introduce their guests to the congregation – and used the Spotlight feature on Zoom to put them front and center on the screen, one by one. The prompts to members were: “Tell us who you invited, and your relationship to them; where they live; tell us what names or nicknames by which you call them (i.e., if they’re your grandparents, do you call them “Bubbe” or “GG” or “Nana,” or if they’re your grandchildren, do you call them “Honey Pie,” or “Sweet Cheeks,” or whatever!); tell us one thing about them that is either a) special or b) funny.” In succession, family members young and old, grandparents, babies, older adults who struggled to unmute themselves, parents, teenagers – all transcended all the miles between them, proudly introduced their family to the community, and shared one funny or special detail about them, each one unique and charming. It was delightful.
After all guests had been introduced and spotlighted, we invited everyone to raise their hands and extend their fingers in the ancient sign of blessing, and recite the Birkat Kohanim – the Torah’s blessing traditionally said for one’s family members on Shabbat, to express a prayer of deep love and protection for one another.
Before the pandemic, we never would have using Zoom to connect loved ones who live far away from each other during Shabbat. But now, after experiencing this touching way of extending our community and expressing a central value of Shabbat – love – our congregation will almost certainly repeat this event. Because we need each other during this pandemic, and we need the Jewish practice of Shabbat love even more.
Rabbi Andy Vogel has been the rabbi at Temple Sinai, Brookline MA since 2004.