To use an already-hackneyed expression, we are living in an extraordinary time. Who knew that Judaism would be affected in this day and age by a virus? And yet, it should come as no surprise that Jews are finding new ways to gather together for worship and other services pertaining to our religion. It is exactly because we live in this day and age that we are able to remain connected as a community and follow many Jewish rituals at this unusual period of our lives.
At Temple Shalom in Colorado Springs, the coronavirus pandemic did not catch staff unprepared. Weeks before the governor’s “stay at home” order, Rabbi Jay Sherwood was taking photographs of the temple’s bimah and other settings in the building. He was aware that synagogues were on the list of proscribed gatherings and was preparing for the move to online worship services.
Rabbi Sherwood uses various photographs he took at that time as background for his Zoom meetings now. Sherwood also utilizes a high definition microphone and green screen in his basement at home to further enhance the online experience for his congregants. These tools allow for better picture, sound and background on Zoom.
Sherwood thought that people would experience a closer connection to the temple by seeing the bimah in the background instead of his home. “They are used to seeing me there,” he says.
Temple Shalom Executive Director Elayna Rathmann says the temple officially went online on March 15. When the Reform and Conservative movements voiced their acceptance of virtual services, Rathmann, Rabbi Sherwood and the board of directors researched different platforms that could be utilized.
Temple Shalom already had a presence on YouTube in making and posting recordings of services, so they began with that. The first YouTube service for the pandemic was recorded on March 20 and 21, but afterward they felt that this was not enough. “There was no engagement,” Rathmann says.
That same week, the temple administration decided to research Zoom as its virtual platform. Difficulties to overcome included security access, technological knowledge, and how to reach members. Rathmann recalls the first Zoom meeting for services: “there were so many things to do at once.”
Even though she and the rabbi had rehearsed before the service, they found themselves almost overwhelmed by the experience of having to juggle duties.
Rathmann, as the host, was in charge of muting and unmuting microphones, sharing and scrolling the siddur on the screen, reading chats, remembering who was coming up next for an aliyah or prayer, who was reading Torah and Haftarah and fielding phone calls and emails from those having difficulty accessing the service.
Since that first Shabbat service, the team has become more accustomed to virtual multi-tasking and sharing the duties. Rabbi Sherwood also cites these problems and more, especially on Friday nights.
For the evening Shabbat service, Rabbi Sherwood plays his guitar for many of the songs. He has to sing, play the guitar, keep track of chats and emails, and scroll the siddur, at the same time being sure he is looking into the camera and singing into the microphone.
During the Shabbat morning service, the guitar is put away after Pesukei Dezimra (preliminary service), and Rabbi Sherwood is able to take over the screen sharing of the siddur and calling out the verses about to be read from the Torah.
He and Rathmann work well together and as a result the service runs smoothly.
The Temple Shalom community has responded positively to the Zoom platform. Comments such as “got my community,” “getting connected” and “Temple Shalom is there for me” have been offered. Congregants became big fans once the technological difficulties were overcome.
Rathmann states that the Zoom experience gets better each week, and that the community is helping.
The success of the Zoom platform for Temple Shalom has resulted in new programs, in addition to the worship services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.
Congregants are invited to participate in “Coffee and Conversation” with Rathmann on Monday mornings.
People can join the meeting to check in with the Temple Shalom administration and let them know how they are doing during the pandemic or if they need assistance. Although the meetings began with topics for discussion, they have morphed into more of a check-in forum.
Torah study continues to meet on Tuesday mornings via Zoom, and the temple also has adult education courses hosted by Rabbi Sherwood, with topics such as Jewish Olympic medalists and cooking.
The religious school has moved to a Zoom platform as well, with education coordinator Deborah Sarna supervising group prayer and classes.
Rabbi Sherwood has officiated at four funerals, one brit milah, two hospital visits and two shiva minyans by Zoom. He even officiated at a taharah (preparing a body for burial) by phone.
At this time, Temple Shalom has plans for upcoming Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in the building, but if Colorado is not back to bricks-and-mortar by then, Zoom is a possibility.
Temple Beit Torah has also gone virtual during the pandemic. Rabbi Iah Pillsbury lives in Denver and has not been able to visit Colorado Springs since the middle of March.
Beit Torah’s services are on Zoom now, although they began with a recorded service on YouTube. Rabbi Pillsbury reports that the first Zoom service on Friday night was on cellphones. Now there is a full Friday night service each week and Torah study on Sundays via Zoom. Last week people were invited to bring their pets to the service.
Rabbi Pillsbury says that their older congregants especially enjoy not having to leave their homes for services.
Some challenges she lists include a steep learning curve and dealing with different comfort zones. “Some people will say they are doing fine at this time, but they are not.”
Psychologically, also, she has difficulty not being able to travel to Colorado Springs to be with her congregation. “It was hard not celebrating the holidays together.” To compensate, Rabbi Pillsbury would like to plan a summer extravaganza that includes something for all missed holidays: Purim, Pesach, Shavuot and Yom Ha’azma’ut.
Also, she would like to have a summer memorial service for those congregants who have lost their lives during this time.
Rabbi Pillsbury mentions some challenges using Zoom: the PDF version of the siddur and loss of spirit during the service. “With everyone muted, you can’t hear the ruach.”
One might think that Rabbi Pillsbury would be a proponent of Zoom, being a long-distance rabbi for her congregation, but she prefers being there.
Of virtual worship, she says, “we are creating a new sacred space. There are different ways to experience Judaism, and this is a way we can come together to bring Shabbat into our hearts.”
Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News