Edward Bernstein
Rabbi, Chaplain, Educator, Writer, Husband, Father

A Shul online service critic is born

Kaddish at home. (Photo montage, Gil Be'eri)
As synagogue services migrate online, different practices have emerged.

In the Mel Brooks classic History of the World, Part I, a cave dweller of two million years ago displays to his friends his painting of a horse on the cave wall. An omniscient narrator, voiced by Orson Welles, intones, “[T]he first artist was born.” Another man then forces his way in front of the crowd, scowls at the painting and urinates on it. The sonorous Welles continues, “Of course, with the birth of the artist came the inevitable afterbirth: the critic.”

A new outlet of criticism is upon us. Our world is struggling with the coronavirus pandemic that has forced many of us to remain safely in our homes and practice “social distancing” until we “flatten the curve.” For the sake of pikuach nefesh, the commandment to save human life, synagogues from across the denominational spectrum, have been shuttered. As a result, many congregations have turned to the Internet for virtual gatherings.  Many worshippers opt to watch the service of the synagogue to which they belong. Others may take advantage of the opportunity to “shul-hop” across the country. I can hear in my mind Orson Welles announcing the arrival of the “synagogue online service critic.”

I am a Conservative rabbi. I spent nearly 20 years in synagogue leadership before moving to hospice chaplaincy. Without congregational responsibilities, I have enjoyed the opportunity in normal times to attend different services in my area as a congregant. Now that I am home-bound, I have visited many different online services in recent weeks. I mainly visited Conservative services because they are best able to meet my spiritual needs of traditional-egalitarian worship coupled with the flexibility to experiment with online platforms. In my virtual shul-hopping, I can’t help but think of my late grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory, a renowned film and entertainment critic for several decades for the Chicago Daily News.

The author’s grandfather, Sam Lesner, film critic for the Chicago Daily News.

I am in a unique position to draw simultaneously upon my experience as a synagogue leader and participant and upon the legacy of Grandpa Sam to share observations on this unusual moment in American-Jewish life. I will highlight features of online worship that have engaged me and those that have not.

Praying as a minyan or as individuals?

Let me state at the outset my full embrace of the online minyan during this period of enforced isolation. I praise all communities who are doing something to maintain connections. In this time of “social distancing,” the term should be altered to “physical distancing,” while we do everything possible to create communal connectedness through our online tools. 

In my search for connection, I attend online minyanim during the week and on Shabbat. Any electronic platform, be it Livestream, Facebook Live or Zoom, is preferable to nothing. Each medium has its plusses and minuses, some of which I will highlight.

My preference has been services that include all devarim she-bikedushah,“words of holiness,” or prayers said  only in the presence of a physical minyan (quorum of 10). These include Barchu (the call to worship), Kedushah (the supplemental declaration of God’s holiness in the Amidah prayer) and the Mourner’s Kaddish. There is precedent for online participants remotely answering the prayers of those who are physically present. However, with a physical minyan now impossible, I advocate online minyanim fulfilling every function of a physical minyan. 

Still, there is a range of practice in online worship as rabbis and communities gauge their levels of comfort with different practices. I was in one Zoom service with 60 people online in which the rabbi led a prayer in lieu of the Mourner’s Kaddish to be said when no minyan is present. I respect this colleague’s commitment to precedent, and yet it did not feel right to me. Thankfully, I am not a mourner now, but my heart aches for those who are mourners and cannot say Kaddish in a physical minyan. Some synagogues refrain from most of the devarim she-bikedushah, but make a point of including the Mourner’s Kaddish. I admire their sensitivity to the emotional needs of the mourners, and I encourage them to add the other parts as well. 

In normal times, my schedule does not allow me to attend one of the local weekday minyanim regularly. I’m used to davening (praying) the weekday service on my own at home. During the last couple of weeks, though, I’ve made it a point to join an online minyan, preferably one saying all of devarim she-bikedushah. It’s very powerful to be able to answer Barchu. In some cases, if I tuned in too late and missed Barchu, I tuned in to another service to answer Barchu It helps that I’m in Eastern Time Zone and can tune in to services in the Central Time Zone if I miss a minyan in the East—another perk of transcontinental shul-hopping.

I respect the reluctance of many traditionally observant Jews to participate in online services, particularly on Shabbat. Aside from the halakhic (Jewish legal) precedent of refraining from use of electricity and electronic devices on Shabbat, my colleague Rabbi Daniel Nevins teaches that Shabbat is meant to be a “countercultural” experience in which we step away from the onslaught of digital screens to just be. This resonates for me for normal times; however, we are not in normal times. For some, the order and discipline of the traditional halakhic system are enough to withstand the present communal trauma. For me, and I believe for many others, utilization of electronic media to sustain community connection is necessary for the moment. I am grateful to Rabbi Robert Harris who called for rabbis to be bold, recognize our present she’at de-haq, “hour of crisis,” and permit online services at all times, including Shabbat.  

Big or intimate?

Synagogues have utilized online platforms, such as Livestream, for several years already as a means to foster inclusion to those unable to attend services in person. Many larger, wealthier congregations already had infrastructure in place, such as a fixed video camera set up at the back of the sanctuary, focused on the bimah. There is no zooming in or out—just a single wide-angle view of the bimah. There are financial and halakhic reasons for the single wide-angle view. To zoom in on the rabbi speaking or the Torah reader or hazzan while they are singing would require staff to operate the equipment during the service. The  enhanced production quality costs money. Additionally, Conservative congregations are bound by halakhah (Jewish law), and traditional Shabbat observance generally does not favor operating electronic equipment. For Conservative congregations that have adopted Livestreaming, it is generally justified halakhically when the camera is in a fixed location, is set on a timer to turn on and off and is not triggered in any way by the movements of the subjects being filmed. 

In this period of “safer at home” (or however it’s phrased in your community), many congregations with the Livestream infrastructure are carrying on services in the sanctuary with only the clergy on the bimah and no congregants in the pews. It is a jarring, eerie experience listening to a rabbi preach to an empty sanctuary and to a cantor singing with no congregation to sing along. The Livestream is supposed to provide the effect of joining a larger congregation,  but the effect does not work in an empty sanctuary. Furthermore, the clergy on screen model physical distancing, often standing or sitting on opposite sides of a large bimah. One rabbi conducted the service wearing latex gloves while standing in an empty sanctuary that hadn’t been opened to the congregation for weeks and certainly must have been cleaned by the maintenance staff in advance of the stream-cast. I appreciated the rabbi’s commitment to modeling safety and hygiene, yet the experience watching this service underscored distancing when most people are craving closeness. 

I commend my colleagues who years ago envisioned Livestreaming as a means to bring about greater inclusion and built the infrastructure to do it. Many elderly folks who were too frail to travel have been able to watch bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies of great-grandchildren thanks to this technology. Observing Livestreaming during this crisis, however, I don’t believe it is working to its best potential. I suggest these congregations consider moving the camera out of the large sanctuary into a more intimate space like the chapel. The congregants can then see the clergy up close and have a greater sense of communal closeness. 

Other online platforms are more conducive to creating a sense of intimacy. Zoom has quickly become the gold standard of gathering for all purposes during this crisis. Participants can see one another, each in their own box. Those of us of a certain age who grew up watching “The Brady Brunch” may recall the show’s opening theme song when we look at one another in our Zoom boxes. Participants can turn their camera and microphone on or off; however, in the emerging halakhah of online worship, a minyan is generally recognized when at least ten participants are visible. Furthermore, the devarim she-bikedushah should be said with participants “unmuted” in order to maximize participation in the minyan. 

Some traditionalists are uncomfortable with Zoom on Shabbat because it involves regular maneuvering of one’s electronic device, such as for muting and unmuting. The administrator of the gathering can override the group and mute or unmute everyone or instruct people to unmute themselves. Often, the administrator is the rabbi or hazzan, and they might be particularly reluctant to play this role on Shabbat. The more static Livestream may be a better option for Shabbat in such circumstances. Indeed, several congregations use Livestream for Shabbat services and Zoom for during the week. I’m personally comfortable with Zoom on Shabbat because it is our best possible tool for creating a sense of community, which is our most important need now. 

Facebook Live is another compelling option. The dynamic is more of a broadcast in which a service leader speaks or sings into the camera. It has more of a performance quality but when used well can feel very intimate. Participants cannot be seen or heard, though the chat box prominently announces people as they log in. Participants can post comments and “likes,” and the presenter can know in real time the level of engagement. One synagogue in Chicago that I’ve visited multiple times has a beautiful Shabbat morning service on Facebook Live led by the hazzan, immediately after which the rabbi facilitates a Torah study discussion on Zoom. 

No matter the platform, it is advisable for participants to have their own siddurim (prayer books) as if they were in synagogue. Most Conservative congregations use either Siddur Sim Shalom or Siddur Lev Shalem. During the Coronavirus crisis, the Rabbinical Assembly has made portions of these publications available in online PDFs.  

As the Jewish world has migrated online, there are suddenly numerous opportunities for engagement, including the possibility of praying with congregations across the country (and world). A new Facebook group jewishLIVE, managed by “Judaism Unbound” Podcast hosts Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg, is providing a tremendous service by aggregating online services, concerts and classes in one place where one can easily find an engaging online Jewish experience. 

Praying for healing

A common trend among the services on all the various platforms is the particular attention devoted to the prayer for healing, “Mi She-berach.” In Livestream services, clergy have been saying it with extra kavannah (intention). On Zoom and Facebook Live, the raw emotion of participants is more evident. In many synagogues during live services, the clergy or gabbai will often ask congregants to quietly reflect on those for whom they are praying. An online platform provides the “space” for congregants to share explicitly whom they are praying for. Some are praying for friends and relatives with COVID-19. Some are praying for dear ones with other ailments whom they are unable to visit because of enforced physical distancing. Some offer prayers for the doctors, nurses and first responders who are on the front lines, often without sufficient protective gear.  The emotional arc of the service peaks during this prayer and peaks again at mourner’s kaddish when often participants share out loud or in the chat space for whom they are saying kaddish. If there is anything we can import from online worship back to synagogue space when we finally return, it should be the intentionality that we apply to prayers for healing and remembrance. Let us never rush through these prayers again. It is often for these very prayers that people are motivated to come to services in the first place. This coronavirus crisis is a stark reminder that at vulnerable moments people need connection. Our great communal challenge is also an opportunity: utilize our online services to strengthen our live services when we return. 

Yes, a shul online service critic is born. It is not to find fault, but to reflect on how best to stay connected now amidst physical distancing and to strengthen connections once we are at last able to be together again in safety and good health.

About the Author
Rabbi Edward Bernstein serves as Chaplain for Vitas Healthcare in Palm Beach County, Florida, and hosts the My Teacher Podcast. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999 and served congregations in New Rochelle, NY, Beachwood, OH, and Boynton Beach, FL. He edited Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, a 2016 National Jewish Book Awards Finalist. He has served on the faculty of Camp Ramah Darom, Moishe House and the JTS Florida Office.
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