For better or worse, Jewish Louisville has entered the era of the virtual synagogue.
Reeling from the global onset of the deadly coronavirus, synagogues here, as well as everywhere touched by the pandemic, are closing their doors, moving their religious and learning activities online.
Reform and Conservative synagogues are live-streaming their daily minyans and Shabbat services, while Orthodox congregations have suspended services altogether, encouraging their worshippers to pray privately at home. They live-stream their classes, though.
Rabbis and cantors lament the loss of personal contact – a handshake, a hug, a face-to-face chat – that came with walking into a synagogue. They fear older members of their congregations will become increasingly isolated. And they note that special events such as baby-namings, b’nai mitzvah and memorial services, are all to be rescheduled.
At the same time, something interesting is happening. Some synagogues are reporting a spike in viewers for their virtual services, crushing the numbers they normally got for walk-in worship.
At The Temple, for the March 13-14 Shabbat, the first weekend of the shutdown, the Friday night services drew 250 viewers at home (they normally get about 80 walk-ins). For Saturday, more than 60 people streamed a service that typically draws 15.
“Ironically, we have more people at services than for any Shabbat I remember,” Rabbi David Ariel-Joel said.
They did have their Shir Chadash choir singing at the Friday service, which was streamed from the chapel.
On Saturday, a worshipper volunteered to be the aliyah for the Torah service. “Now we have people in line who want to do that,” Ariel-Joel said.
The Temple isn’t alone.
“We are definitely getting a larger number,” said Cantor David Lipp of Adath Jeshurun, who has been streaming daily minyans with Rabbi Robert Slosberg on Zoom and Facebook Live. He noted, though, that it took “a time or two for people to get used to it.”
Temple Shalom and Keneseth Israel have similar experiences. Temple Shalom had 83 people view its first live-streamed Shabbat service, either in real time or the taped version.
Keneseth Israel, which also is live-streaming its daily minyans, has noticed people viewing the services who would not normally show up at the synagogue, Cantor Sharon Hordes said.
Spikes in virtual worshippers don’t surprise Rabbi Dan Medwin , associate director of digital media for the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the umbrella group for the Reform rabbinate.
“When the pandemic has finally passed,” Medwin said, “it will be a different world.”
How much so, he cautioned, is still hard to predict.
People who crave social contact will return to the synagogue, perhaps in higher numbers than before, Medwin said. But many models that rabbis and cantors are now using to connect digitally with their congregations will persist as worshippers become increasingly used to them.
“I am certain that people’s comfort with technology will take a massive leap forward because of this,” Medwin said. “I’ve already been in contact with countless rabbis who never considered live-streaming or using Visual T’fillah (prayer book on PowerPoint) previously and are now looking for help to get started.”
In fact, the CCAR has posted prayer books online for free, enhancing the live-streamed service experience.
“Folks are hungering to be a part of a community,” Medwin said. “Streaming services is an option –more so than other virtual gatherings – that can provide that sense of community.”
While Hordes is concerned that the technology will be a “barrier” for older and less tech-savvy members, she has noticed worshippers warming to the idea of virtual services as a way to overcome social distancing.
“It’s kind of nice,” she said. “We’re all reducing our social circles now, so after services we just sort of hung around online and chatted.”
“I think there’s a real longing for connection and it’s a blessing we have this technology,” he said, “something I always saw as a mixed blessing as it kept us from direct contact which I felt we needed. Now it’s all many have left to be safe.”
The Internet aside, synagogues are adapting to help their members through the current crisis.
They are forming calling trees to connect with all their members, organizing volunteers to deliver groceries and prescriptions to those who cannot get out. Rabbis and cantors are making themselves as accessible as possible.
They are even finding ways to help people with different needs.
Rabbi Avrohom Litvin of Chabad of Kentucky said a man contacted to him, needing a minyan to say Kaddish for a relative who just died. Since that was not possible, he asked the rabbi for guidance.
“He felt he was letting down the deceased by not saying Kaddish,” Litvin said. “We decided that instead of saying Kaddish for his soul, he would do a different mitzvah.”
In fact, his whole family did. One put on tefillin. Another pledged to light Shabbat candles. A third said Shema for the seven days of Shiva.
“I began to wonder if we could not use this period of isolation to focus on those mitzvos which are still available to us,” Litvin said.
Litvin’s story isn’t unique. In the first week of the isolation, Ariel-Joel had one family that was forced to put off indefinitely a memorial service for a relative who just died He also had a mother who just gave birth to a boy, but the hospital wouldn’t let him attend the circumcision.
On the other side, rabbis and cantors, like most people still employed, are working from home, tutoring b’nai mitzvah only and attending board meetings while sharing the same space with their families.
It isn’t easy.
Hordes recounted a recent moment when she needed a quiet place to tutor one of her bat mitzvah students, away from her husband and kids .
“I had to walk in to a walk-in closet, sit down on the floor and give a bat mitzvah lesson without being disturbed,” she said.