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Shabbat dinners amid the pandemic: An ancient Jewish tradition goes virtual

For decades, Teme Ring was cut off from her Jewish faith.

The former lawyer was forced to give up her career in 2000, after an onslaught of autoimmune diseases and dysautonomia, conditions that also made her too weak to step into a synagogue for in-person services.

“I’m in my own personal diaspora,” she said.

In recent years, Ring had hoped to reconnect with faith through a synagogue in downtown Chicago. “I realized I really missed it,” she said. “But it seemed ridiculous to belong and never show up.” She only dragged herself to synagogue once, and her symptoms were such that she was physically present but spiritually absent.

Now, however, during the pandemic, with many Jewish congregations taking services online for the first time, Ring’s faith has undergone its long overdue blossoming.

Empowered by technology, she can now regularly attend Shabbat and classes at two different synagogues in Chicago, and at a third in Southern California, where her parents live.

“I’ve gone from no Jewish contact for 20 years to now being a member of three congregations,” she said. “I don’t feel isolated anymore.”

A weekly holiday finds a new virtual home

Ring’s experience reflects a growing trend in Judaism, as several branches of the faith, long resistant to technology, find ways to adapt during the pandemic.

A traditional way to gather with fellow Jews is through weekly dinners over Zoom, which mark Shabbat (Hebrew for the Sabbath). The holiday begins each Friday at sunset and ends at sundown the following day.

One group that has embraced the virtual possibilities for faith is Lab/Shul, which describes itself as an “everybody-friendly, artist-driven, God-optional, pop up community for sacred Jewish gatherings in New York City.”

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Lab/Shul had regularly organized robust in-person community dinners. But since March, the group has moved its weekly gatherings online, in a format called ShaBasics, stripped down to the fundamentals of bread, wine, candles and a blessing.

“What the Sabbath is about is an invitation to tap into the sacred specialness of life,” Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, who leads Lab/Shul, said. “It helps us transcend the anxiety of the every day.”

The irony of gathering online for the Sabbath is that the weekly holiday is often seen as a time to unplug from screens, not reattach ourselves to them.

But as much of the world moves work, school or social events onto virtual meetups, merging the sacred with the virtual is the only way we can make it through this global crisis.

“The Sabbath is the weekly opportunity to breathe whether you believe in God or not,” Lau-Lavie said.

Shabbat is an ancient ritual

It’s a tradition nearly as old as time itself.

Shabbat celebrates the seventh day of creation in the Book of Genesis, a holy day of rest and reflection after the labors of the week.

During the tedium of quarantine, Shabbat assumes a kind of “anti-blursday” quality, Lau-Lavie said. “It’s one of the ways to make days distinguishable from each other.”

Dressing up, putting a tablecloth on the table, seeing your friends and reflecting on your larger values help the day be more than just a regular day.

“Shabbat is fun. It’s this awesome holiday we get every week to rest, to pray and to sing,” said Rabbi Sandra Lawson, associate chaplain for Jewish life and a Jewish educator at Hillel at Elon University in North Carolina.

And perhaps, mostly importantly, it’s a day dedicated to connection.

“A lot of the things we do are centered on community,” said Lawson, who has become a Jewish digital leader of sorts, viewing social media as a way to welcome others into the faith. “We’re never designed to be alone and to pray alone.”

In order to perform certain rituals or prayers, Judaism calls for a gathering of at least 10 people to form a minyan, or quorum. But with physical gatherings of 10 people prohibited in many areas due to the coronavirus pandemic, serving communities virtually during quarantine presents a conundrum in how to uphold Jewish tradition while taking public health into consideration.

Thousands of years of tradition collide with a 21st-century pandemic

Lau-Lavie, who was previously a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, isn’t a stranger to using technology to break new ground in the faith.

Five years ago, when his father passed away, Lau-Lavie was away in Jerusalem, while his spiritual community was back in New York. Skirting tradition, he issued a call for others to engage with him in the mourner’s prayer over Zoom.

“I got a lot of flak from rabbis,” he said. But perspectives like his are now becoming accepted within his strand of Judaism, thanks to an extra nudge from this year’s pandemic.

Like other monotheistic religions, Judaism has many movements, including the strictly ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist wings, all of which are grappling with limits set by the pandemic.

In May, the rabbinic arm of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism issued a 30-page opinion formally allowing the use of electronic devices to stream services for Shabbat and other Jewish holidays.

That decision — one of several by different movements — carves out some new space in millennia-long debate about how and when to adapt faith and technology. It also empowers congregations such as B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs, Georgia, which is part of the Conservative movement, to continue with the kind of virtual services that became a practical necessity in March.

Strictly Orthodox communities have opposed the use of technology during Shabbat and holidays, and each individual Jewish community is adapting in its own way.

“How many of the digital offerings will actually become the way we do religious business?” Lau-Lavie wondered. “Jewish law can take a backseat to the need to connect. We are in triage. When this is over, we can debate Jewish law.”

Lawson, the rabbi from Elon University, likened the current need for evolution to actions early radical Jews took after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Jewish communities needed to establish how to interact without a physical grounding space. Out of that spirit the concept of rabbinical Judaism, which permeates the faith today, was born.

Coronavirus forces a similar rethinking of how we gather spiritually and what we think of as a sacred space, she argued.

“We’re going to emerge into something beautiful. Our history is one of evolving,” Lawson said. “Many are going to like this and they aren’t going to want to go back.”

High holy days are coming

This is all good practice for the most sacred of Jewish holidays. Rosh Hashana beginning on September 18 leads into Yom Kippur on September 27.

Rabbi Joshua Lesser, who leads Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, has dedicated himself to providing the best possible virtual high holiday experience for his congregants, while taking into account the need for social distancing or quarantine.

“A lot of folks are wondering if their community’s endurance is on the line,” he said. “It’s an experiment we have to get right.”

One way he’s doing that is asking members of the congregation to think of their homes as sacred spaces, and to consider creating a small sanctuary in one corner. The rabbi is creating boxes to deliver to members with holiday candles, apple snacks, honey and notebooks for them to jot down their reflections so they can mark the high holidays at home.

And he plans to highlight a particular prayer, the Yizkor, which remembers those who have died in the last year. Many in his congregation are aching over not being able to attend in-person funerals for loved ones during the pandemic.

Lesser co-leads a Facebook group called “Dreaming Up High Holy Days 2020,” in which nearly 2,500 cantors, rabbis and lay leaders exchange ideas on how to celebrate the holy days during the pandemic, either virtually or with in-person modifications in place.

“This shaking up of things has created a Jewish creative revolution,” he said. “This has been an incredible creative, generative moment.”

Friday night

Every Friday night, congregants have another chance to connect. At Lab/Shul’s Shabbat dinner on July 31, Rabbi Lau-Lavie asked those in attendance to think about something in their life that they regret, and to meditate on how to move past it.

He used his own digital addiction as an example, noting that he planned to switch his phone off for 24 hours that weekend. It was a choice that illustrates the universal paradox of finding meaning in the time of coronavirus, using a digital medium for life-sustaining connection to others while also issuing a critique of a digital medium.

It’s something that nearly anyone who attends one of the virtual Shabbat dinners could relate to whether they’re atheist, agnostic, Jewish or “Jew-ish,” as Lau-Lavie said.

Nearly 800 miles away in a Chicago suburb, Ring was also celebrating Shabbat, comfortably at home and using a digital technology to spiritually connect with her community. She has found in Zoom a blessing to help undo decades of feeling cast out.

“I did feel very isolated. I felt Judaism was lost to me and I was lost to it, like I didn’t have a physical place in it,” she said. Now, though, she has at least three virtual places in the faith.

“They all treat me as their spiritual neighbor,” she added. “Now nobody has to be invisible.”

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