Help! Making Meaning from My Zoom Shabbat Service

When I was in tenth grade I was a solid B math student: until one day I had a teacher who thought that I could do better.  After I failed the first test of the semester we sat down.  Within five minutes she had identified the problem.  In ten years of schooling, no one had ever taught me how to prepare for a math test.  Not surprisingly, once I was taught how to practice the sample problems, and look over my homework, I became an A- student.

Recently, my wife replayed for me a YouTube video about how to make Judaism meaningful in an online age.  When it came to online religious services, one comedian quipped that he thought they were cool at first, but then “became a little like watching a bad television rerun.”

Those of us who attend services weekly can appreciate this struggle.  For all of the good that technology does to connect us, COVID-19 leaves us feeling disconnected.  For Jews who enjoy services but come for kiddush and togetherness, this has been a real challenge.  Online prayer, and prayer in general, feel increasingly stale.  As spiritual leaders, we need to buckle down and evaluate how not to make services feel like the same Brady Brunch episode each week.

Yet, to “make the grade,” tefilla takes work from participants too: it’s supposed to be an active, and not a passive experience (and I don’t mean active in terms of “please rise” and “you may be seated” that can feel like aerobics).

Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, most of us “zoomed” into online services without taking the time to talk about how to make the most of the experience.

Now, if you’ll let me be your “math teacher,” here are five steps for how to gain more meaning by preparing for your synagogue’s Zoom service:

Step 1: Get dressed, take a shower, and wear Shabbat clothes.  It might be surprise you that going all the way back to the Talmud, Shabbat 113b, our sages teach Bigdei Shabbat, dressing for Shabbat is one way we get ourselves into a spiritual mindset.   I am not saying that you have to wear a suit to a Zoom service; but wear something different that makes Shabbat different than your weekday COVID shorts. Wear a piece of family jewelry or your tallit.  If you come to the couch in pajamas, it shouldn’t surprise you if services feel like you are still asleep.

Step 2: Prepare a Shabbat Meal for After Services/Your own kiddush lunch.  It’s called an Oneg Shabbat, the Joy of Shabbat, for a reason.  It doesn’t have to be complicated.  But there is something spiritual about the act of preparing food for Shabbat, baking Challah, etc. and then looking forward to a Shabbat meal afterward that will help make prayer more meaningful.

Step 3: Before you sit down to your Zoom screen, find a quiet place and reflect.  This might seem obvious, and for those of us with children it may be downright impossible.  However, the mishna teaches that early pious people would meditate for an hour before they actually showed up to services.  Open up the siddur and study one prayer that you’ve always wanted to understand better.  It’s hard enough to be in shul and focus, but don’t show up to Zoom unprepared.  It’s like trying to take a math test without studying.

Step 4: Don’t feel the pressure to keep up.  Rabbi Sid Schwarz once told me that whomever thought that the best way to connect with God was to speed reading through Hebrew made a serious goof.  It’s true: Services have material to cover.  But take a moment and breathe.  Find a few lines that you find meaningful.  There’s nothing wrong with seeing one prayer that you like and spending an hour focusing on it.  Unlike a television rerun, you don’t have to watch the entire episode to get something out of it.

Step 5: Be more forgiving of yourself.  Recognize that we are living in extraordinary times. Take some solace in the fact that we are all struggling together.  You are not alone.  The Kotzker Rebbe famously remarked that there is “nothing more whole than a broken heart.”  During services, channel that sentiment and pour out your heart to God.  Look for prayers that speak to your personal struggle.  Embrace that struggle, and use it for meaning making.

Other tips?  Add them in the comments section.  In these uncertain times, your community is still in the business of creating meaningful, prayerful experiences.  Thanks for partnering with us on the journey.

About the Author
Daniel Dorsch is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. He also serves a Vice President of MERCAZ-USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement. He enjoys barbecuing in the winter, wearing jeans to work, and spending time with his family.
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