By Rabbi Yael Buechler
While school was remote, it was quite a creative endeavor to pivot into the realm of Zoom. We had to quickly find ways to make our virtual programming meaningful and engaging. From having Yonatan Razel, the Israeli singer, make a surprise cameo at our school’s virtual Pesach Play to Zooming with the same camel who had visited us in-person last Yom HaAtzmaut, Zoom has certainly enabled us to bring elements of surprise and fun to what would otherwise be challenging events.
When our students went back to school in-person, we did not yet have a plan for how we would address communal events, specifically our much-anticipated pre-Simchat Torah celebrations. Each year, families and students at the Lower School where I am a rabbi look forward to these celebrations where students symbolically have aliyot to the Torah and have the opportunity to dance with the Torahs, along with the 250 guests in attendance.
Given that we had returned to school, with the restrictions on singing indoors, along with us not having guests on campus, we still wanted to find a special way to mark this event.
What transpired was a Zoom more meaningful than many of us could have ever imagined. We pivoted to a service that was filled with hand motions choreographed to tefilot as well as socially-distanced dancing. Our school’s minister of music, Amichai Margolis, sang tefilot so that our students could still experience the joy of music and he encouraged them to sing using the “voices of their hearts.”
During this program, we utilized Zoom’s Spotlight feature to highlight each class as they did hand motions for the Shema and danced to Hodu LaHaShem Ki Tov during our Hallel processional. Seeing the students, class by class, eagerly wave and dance to each of the tefilot and songs was a testament to their true resilience during this pandemic. Their energy embodied, the joy that the Torah describes in “V’Samachta B’Chagechah,” you should rejoice in your festivals” (Deuteronomy 16:14).
Different classes symbolically had aliyot to the Torah (we unmuted them to recite the brachot) and students read from the Torah. We asked fifth grade twins to leyn Torah so that they could both be unmasked in a room together and help hold the Torahs for one another.
We also invited local clergy – and their Torahs – to join us as a surprise on Zoom. We were able to Spotlight, in succession, 12 clergy from the tri-state area who were each standing by with a Torah so that they could virtually dance with our community. This moment demonstrated how anything is possible with proper virtual preparations.
With the right tools, the right Spotlighting, and the right kavanah (intention), we were able to transport ourselves from the darkness of the pandemic to the simchah that the chagim can offer us. Zoom truly empowered us to build a virtual kehilah (community).
Pandemic tefilah and celebrations may have many challenges but my hope is that our community’s Simchat Torah experience will be a model of inspiration for the continued possibilities of creating meaningful moments on Zoom. While we as a world may be experiencing Zoom fatigue, this service reminded me how creating meaningful Jewish moments is not only possible but crucial during this time period.
As the parents of the Torah readers, whose grandparents were able to be on the Zoom from Argentina, put it, “Who would have thought we’d experience this type of profound simchah, in Zman Simchateinu?”
May we go from Zoom to Zoom.