Jews Turn to Internet to Salvage Community


In an effort to beat back isolation and stitch together a makeshift kind of religious life as the coronavirus outbreak deepened this week, Jews across the country turned to the internet. Untethered from their shuttered synagogues, they were hoping to find a sense of community, however elusive it may be.

“I think this moment calls for sober, aggressive and courageous steps to address the public health crisis we are facing,” Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, spiritual leader of the Park Avenue Synagogue, told The Jewish Week. (The White House directed that Americans avoid groups of more than 10 in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.) “At the same time, I think that creating community the best way we can in a time of social distancing reminds us of our shared and fragile humanity.”

Congregations are now using the Zoom internet platform to connect with members so they can form daily minyanim. In an email to members after their first virtual minyan last Sunday night, Howard Buechler, the Conservative rabbi of the Dix Hills (L.I.) Jewish Center, wrote: “Our minyan was a magnificent mitzvah moment and a milestone in the history and future of our DHJC family.” 

And a Zoom prayer service was held for the first time Monday morning for members of Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation in Manhattan. (Its Friday night and Saturday morning services are televised on the Jewish Broadcasting Service.)

“We had 18 people participate and we said the Shehecheyanu (a prayer recited to mark a joyous occasion) that we still have the ability to pray and say Kaddish,” said Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the congregation’s spiritual leader. “This is a new world for us. … You need to know that your community is there for you, and technology enables us to communicate with each other when we show up for each other.”

Zoom prayer services are also being offered Monday and Thursday mornings at Congregation Beth Ohr, a Conservative synagogue in Bellmore, L.I.. But the rabbi, Dahlia Bernstein, said she does not recognize virtual minyanim, so instead of the Mourner’s Kaddish mourners read a substitute prayer.

But she said that  if the synagogue closing continues, she will re-evaluate her position.

New guidance published by the Conservative movement on Tuesday may help. It came from the two chairs of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and said that due to the “current dire circumstances, a more lenient position on constituting a minyan may be acceptable. … 

“In this crisis situation … it is permitted to constitute a minyan whose constitutive participants (ten adult Jews) are not located in one physical space. … The participants counted for the minyan must be able to see and hear each other through virtual means and be able to respond ‘amen’ and other liturgical replies to the prayer leader.”

Zoom is also being used by Temple Emanu-El of the City of New York to offer classes to its congregants, according to Rabbi Joshua Davidson.

“For those who don’t have computer access or for whom it is not easy to access a computer, we are doing it by phone conferencing as well,” he said. “Our nursery school teachers are checking on their students by phone, and our religious school teachers will offer classes remotely. Our phone lines are open and our email is open. I’m sure that is the case with most every synagogue. And we are encouraging our members to access our online library so they can explore the breadth of Jewish literature that’s available. People can also reach me. I have been getting phone calls and emails — I would say more than normal.”

Zoom was also enlisted on Sunday by Aaron Kaplowitz of Manhattan when he wanted to say Kaddish for his mother. He said he recruited 35 of his friends from such places as Los Angeles, Israel, Washington, D.C., and the New York area. They all connected using Zoom. After reciting the afternoon prayer, he recited the Mourner’s Kaddish, one of his friends spoke about his mother and another chanted a prayer for her soul.

“This was a beautiful opportunity to say Kaddish among friends, which was nice,” said Kaplowitz, 35.   

Not only are prayer services and classes being taught using Zoom, but b’nai mitzvah lessons are continuing using Zoom or the phone, said Rabbi Joel Levinson of the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, L.I.

“We do whatever is most comfortable for the child,” he said. “We are also having conversations with the families and most are choosing to reschedule for a later date. We are prepared to be flexible within the tradition. If the family reschedules, we could have the child read the Haftorah that was prepared and another member of the congregation will then read the Haftorah for that day. We don’t want to penalize a child’s preparation; we want to recognize the child’s work.”

But David Zvi Kalman, a Fellow in Residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute, questioned whether a virtual minyan might be the undoing of congregations.

“If religious leaders bow to pressure to sanctify virtual space, even as a stopgap measure, we may see a new attrition in physical attendance, which in turn will motivate the services themselves to be more appealing to virtual audiences, which in turn will make physical attendees wonder why they bothered to show up in person,” he wrote in Tablet magazine. “These services will undoubtedly be more accessible — but they may also be shallower.”

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, dismissed that argument, saying simply: “Let’s deal with this period now. Those are concerns we will examine the day after.”

And Rabbi David Steinhardt, spiritual leader of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Fla., said synagogues offer more than just prayer services.

“It is wonderful to have a community to turn to during a time of isolation,” he said. “We have developed a list of congregants over the age of 80 — it numbers about 400 — and we have 50 congregants who will call them daily from their homes to see how they are doing and to see if they have any needs that could be left at their door. It is good not only for those being called, but those calling feel productive when they themselves are isolated and under quarantine.”

Rabbi Buchdahl said her congregation has created a “phone tree to check on congregants to see how they are doing and whether they need any food supplies or tech support. … We will soon have many people calling everyone in the community. … The situation keeps changing, and we are trying to adapt.”

Also adapting is JBS, which for nearly a year has been offering prerecorded Friday evening services from the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, a Modern Orthodox congregation. With Jews largely confined to their homes now, JBS will shortly begin airing prerecorded Saturday morning services from the Hampton Synagogue.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, the congregation’s spiritual leader, said that next week Cantor Netanel Hershtik and the synagogue’s seven-member professional choir will record the service (there will be no Torah or Haftorah readings).

“JBS has asked us to record a Shabbat service of 90-minutes or so, and JBS will make the determination how to use all of the material we record,” he said. “We will also be recording a service for Passover and for Havdalah. The technical crew will put it all together.”

“This past weekend over 200,000 viewers watched our Kabbalat [Shabbat] service,” Rabbi Schneier said. “This is a unique opportunity for the Hampton community and the Jewish people worldwide.”

In addition, the Hampton Synagogue plans to record a seder with the cantor and choir participating.

Rabbi Mark Golub, CEO and founding president of JBS, said the Saturday morning service would air from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to accommodate viewers on both coasts.

“I am cognizant of how important JBS has become for people who have become shut-ins because of age or illness,” he said. “But now when we are all homebound, JBS will be a lifeline for hundreds of thousands if not millions of Jews.”