Sign up for shul — it’s the new normal

Since I can't take shul for granted anymore, I ask: what else do we change? Do we shorten the service? The Torah reading? Welcome to the brave new world of COVID-19 worship

So, the Saturday before last, I went to shul for Shabbat.

It almost sounds like a punchline. But this was the first time I’d been to synagogue since Purim. Back then, in early March, we had no idea what we were in for. I’d sported lab glasses, an N95 mask, and a hazmat suit emblazoned with gold lettering across the back: “I Coughed The Night Away At Stacy’s Bat Mitzvah.” Tasteless, yes; prescient, too.

By Purim standards, there was hardly anyone present, and in its wisdom, the synagogue had curtailed most of the holiday revelry.

Shortly after, New York State shut down, and much of Jewish life with it.

It wasn’t until Shavuot that I ventured “back.” Well, early on I tried the daily “minyan,” with its awkward pauses and weird crotch shots because people didn’t move their devices when they stood for certain prayers. But after Shavuot, it was clear that there was a demand. People wanted to be together, whatever that might mean in the era of Zoom gatherings. They wanted to hear the prayers, hear Torah, and sing loudly, on mute, in their basements. They wanted to be part of this weird service, altered to reflect that it wasn’t a literal minyan.

Daily Zoom minyan at New City Jewish Center.

Eventually, I, too, gave in to Zoom Shabbat services, signing in before sundown and dealing with the awkwardness of unmuting to read Torah from a Chumash. (It’s way easier with vowels and trope marks, let me tell you!)

I’m one of the regulars. Synagogue is a big part of my life. Before the pandemic, you could find me most Saturdays between 9:30 a.m. (okay, so I get there a little late) and noon at New City Jewish Center. Frequently, I leyn Torah or daven Musaf. So I guess it was inevitable, despite my distaste for the platform, that I became one of the regulars on Zoom.

I took on assigning the reading and leading of the services to congregants willing to do so. I’ve always wanted to belong to a shul that was a little more participatory and DIY in nature. Here was my chance! The rabbis had enough on their plates. Doling out parts was something I could do. With a truncated service and the shorter triennial Torah reading we were doing because, well, a whole kriya on Zoom is really just too much, I thought maybe we’d catch a few more readers. If some of them were teens, even better. You want to do the Torah intro or a d’var? Fantastic.

It was clear that at some point, however, we would return.


But to what?

What do you change? And what do you keep the same? If you change the service so much, do you defeat the purpose of reopening by scaring off or tightly limiting those who would come?

Signing up in advance? Services lasting just 90 minutes to two hours? A triennial Torah reading for the foreseeable future? Welcome to the brave new world of COVID-19 worship.

Before, shul was something you could take for granted. Not anymore. You can’t just go because you’re feeling it that morning.

With the high holidays looming, the need to hold b’nei mitzvot that were derailed by the pandemic, and the desire to keep those simchas already scheduled for the fall on track, the synagogue tentatively opened for Shabbat on August 15. There was a bat mitzvah that day, so according to the new post-corona rules, the family and guests were prioritized. They took up the 50 or so available seats that had been set aside — in a sanctuary that can fit about 400 people.

Instead of using Zoom, congregants at home could join by watching a livestream. I did so to understand how the service would work going forward, since the next week I’d be reading haftarah and davening Musaf.

I’ll leave the livestream alone for now. It was like watching shul on television. Feh. Zoom, for all its problems, offers some facsimile of togetherness.

Before my big re-entry into shul life arrived, I pre-enrolled to attend services. There are waivers and protocols and confirmation notifications. I had my temperature taken at the door before re-entry, and there were only about 20 of us present. I already had learned from attempting to assign the parts of the service that most of those who are capable and who typically long to read Torah or lead davening are still leery of being back in the physical space of the shul.

And yet.

There are those people who needed to return. After all these months of imposed separation from others, when Jewish space has gravitated to cyberspace, they simply longed to be together.

I have mixed feelings. Reading haftarah and leading the davening with a mask on was bizarre and clammy, with each intake of breath including a bit of my flannel-lined mask. After years of being exhorted to show some “ruach,” spirit, the new rules say we should not sing along — we’ve heard that this is part of what makes synagogues and churches rife for super-spreading the virus — but what is shul without singing?

Despite all this, there was something powerful about being able to chant one of the haftarot of consolation that we read in our lead-up to Rosh Hashanah. But it was in putting away the Torah and singing Eitz Chayim before the ark that it hit me just how long exile from synagogue had been.

This past week, I didn’t assign myself any role in the service. And there was a bar mitzvah, so I didn’t make the cut to attend. Any extra spaces not filled by the celebrants would go to someone observing a yahrzeit or in a period of mourning. This coming week, I’m leyning, and there’s a simcha. It will be … an experience. Our new normal — at least until there is a vaccine, I imagine.

And then there’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur staring down the calendar at me. I’m one of only two people reading Torah and haftarot this year. Who actually will be in the shul? Who will read and who will lead? Who will open the ark? Do hagbah?

Do I bring my own yad?

This year, we will read the Unataneh Tokef and the words “who will live and who will die” will weigh on us differently. How could they not? Who by fire? Who by sword?

Who by plague?

But at least I will be there. Hineni.

About the Author
Marla Cohen is a freelance writer in Rockland County, New York.
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