By Barbara Sheklin Davis
Among the multiple thumbnails that peopled my screen in Syracuse last Shabbat was a friend in a hospital, a congregant in hospice, and several current and former members of the synagoguewho had moved to or were quarantined in Florida. My husband, who recently died, had Parkinson’s disease. For the last months of his life, it was impossible for us to attend services. Had a Zoom option existed for us then, we would have been “regulars.” I have friends who are now Shabbat attendees at a synagogue in New York City, whose rabbi used to be our rabbi. They missed her – and are now able to enjoy her leadership and her sermons again.
I like services on Zoom. For the first time in my life, I can observe Havdallah being celebrated by dozens of families in my community. I have learned that there are many ways the blessings and Eliahu haNavi can be sung, with melodies of incredible loveliness demonstrating the perfect way to end Shabbat late on a summer evening. I like the fact that now, thanks to Zoom, I can visit services around the country, with different rabbis and cantors. Recently, I “attended” a Shabbat morning service at an independent, traditional and egalitarian Jewish “association” in a nearby city which I never would have discovered on my own. I loved every minute of their “musical davening and Torah study experience,” but there is no way I could have or would have been there without Zoom.
When the pandemic reaches its inevitable and longed-for conclusion, I hope the Zoom option remains available for people to participate remotely, whether they are distant, incapacitated or simply prefer to remain at home. I realize that Judaism is all about connections, that we need ten people for a minyan, that a Jew needs to be part of a community. But is also said that a Jew is never alone, and for many, being able to connect remotely may be a better alternative than not connecting at all. When a funeral service is livestreamed, it allows mourners who could never attend in person to be participants in the grieving. When a bris is celebrated virtually, grandparents and great-grandparents living oceans away can be present.
We know that when the current situation resolves itself, more people will be working from home, telemedicine will be normative and remote learning will be an integral part of education. Virtual prayer services, worship, teaching, commemoration and celebrating can and should continue to be parts of Jewish religious life. Instead of driving us further apart and isolating us, technology can draw us closer together, keep us linked, help us attract new adherents, bring back those who have left, accommodate those who feel most comfortable in front of a screen, and welcome those who prefer to pray in their pajamas.
There is no doubt that most people will appreciate going “back to shul” for things that can never be done as well online, like speaking with the rabbi and fellow congregants, snacking and schmoozing at the kiddush. Ironically, however, an unanticipated benefit of Covid-19 is the realization that being Jewish remotely may actually allow us to draw closer together in the future.
Barbara Davis is the Special Projects Associate for the Jewish Federation of Central New York. She is an educator, author and local historian.