Friday, December 10, 2021

Rabbi Ahuvah (Amy) Loewenthal: Reflecting on the Strength of Our Zoom Shabbat Experience


Thanks, Rabbi Ahuvah (Amy) Loewenthal, for this thoughtful reflection!

As an RRC student living in Mt. Airy, I was an active member of Dorshei Derekh. I enjoyed the warm community, the spirited tradition-based davening, and the engaging varied divrei Torah. When I moved away from Philly, I retained my Dorshei Derekh membership to stay linked and to demonstrate my ongoing support.

My wife and I currently belong to four shuls. During the pandemic, many shuls began offering Shabbat services on Zoom. Some were earlier adopters. Some wrestled with halachic considerations. A remarkable aspect of Dorshei Derekh services on Zoom is the sense of actually gathering together as a community. Participants feel witnessed and included, not passive consumers.

Participation is encouraged in various ways. On these Zoom services, the chat function is enabled. People can express their appreciation during the service through a hearty “Yisher Kokhaikh!” dropped into the chat, as would occur in an in-person service. One can also privately message a friend to inquire after their well-being, as would occur sotto voce in an in-person service.

Some shlikhei tzibbur (service leaders) will pose a thematic question in conjunction with a prayer. For example, during a prayer on Creation, the kahal might be asked to recount a beautiful moment in nature. People will unmute and briefly share their experiences.

Typically, a darshan (Torah sermonizer) will present a framework for viewing the weekly parasha, followed by discussion prompts. Participants are then sent to breakout rooms to talk in small groups, before reassembling for the darshan’s concluding remarks. It is fascinating to hear such a variety of comments, and a great way to get to learn about one another. A breakout room of four to six people seems perfect, more fruitful than a whole group discussion or a paired conversation, as might be proposed in-person.

There are pastoral moments which work well on Zoom. There are opportunities surrounding the Torah service to share one’s news of a happy or difficult life cycle event; to offer the names of friends and relatives in need of healing; and to encourage those within the community who are facing a health challenge.

Mourners share the names of those they are remembering before Kaddish Yatom is recited, and everyone unmutes to be able to respond “Amen, Brikh Hu, Yehai Shmei Rabbah…”.

At the end of the service, visitors and newer members are encouraged to introduce themselves. They receive a warm welcome. After Kiddush, there’s often an opportunity to schmooze in breakout rooms before folks push back from the computer and move on to lunch in their own homes.

When I’ve been free on Shabbat morning to attend Dorshei Derekh services on Zoom, I’ve marveled at how these many measures generate a feeling of being included and cared about. This community clearly prioritizes connectedness. Dorshei Derekh’s effectiveness at gathering people this way is outstanding among the many shul communities I’m involved with.

I have loved attending services from afar and have enjoyed serving as a shlikhat tzibbur several times.

It’s wonderful to be able to stay in touch with fellow members even though I’m geographically distant. And it has been interesting to meet and get to know people who arrived in the community after I left. In some ways, Zoom Shabbat services may seem to be a less than ideal but necessary mode during the pandemic. However, there are benefits to being able to meet via Zoom. One’s geographical distance or other obstacles to attending in person no longer preclude participation.

An amusing unexpected consequence is that the group is showing up much more promptly to Zoom Shabbat morning services. At a typical in-person Shabbat service, attendance is lighter for Pesukei d’Zimrah but builds during Shakharit, up to maximum attendance for the Torah service. On Zoom, it turns out that people are happy to join earlier, while sipping coffee in the comfort of their own homes.

The future course of the pandemic is hard to predict. Perhaps the option of remote access will end once the pandemic ends. Perhaps multi-access will become a shul norm. In any case, Jewish community members will have a rich opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned in adapting to these unusual times.

~Rabbi Ahuvah (Amy) Loewenthal, 2021