The first gathering of a virtual kaddish minyan that now meets nightly exemplified how the Jewish Atlanta has found a new understanding of what it means to be in community.
Michael Rekhelman, a member of Congregation Bet Haverim, had been saying kaddish daily since his father died Nov. 25. He often attended a daily minyan at Congregation Beth Jacob along with his brother-in-law, a Beth Jacob member whose own father had died the same day.
“This has become very important to me, both as a way to honor the memory of my father and as a touchstone in my daily life to help me center and to help me mourn. I am not that observant, and my father wasn’t at all, but from day one I felt a strong need to say kaddish every day, so when it came to an abrupt halt, it left a big void. And then CBH came to the rescue so quickly and efficiently, I was really touched and blown away,” Rekhelman said.
That first virtual minyan, conducted on the video conference platform Zoom,
brought together a dozen or so members of Bet Haverim and, from Seattle, Barbara Schwartz, whose brother is a member of CBH.
Schwartz’s husband, Stephen, a long-time professor of pathology at the University of Washington and a pioneer in the field of vascular biology, had died a couple of days earlier, on March 17, at age 78, from the coronavirus known as COVID-19.
Schwartz offered heartfelt thanks for being permitted to join the Bet Haverim minyan. The Atlantans replied that they felt honored to be there for her.
“I am in quarantine. There are no services or shiva possible here because of the severity of the crisis. I am grateful to CBH for sharing these virtual services with me and for being so welcoming. It is a great comfort,” she told the AJT in the days after the service.
Thus did technology permit an Atlantan to continue saying kaddish for his father and provide a woman in Seattle a minyan when one was not possible there. The minyan has continued since that night, with the number of participants growing.
“The entire world – Jewish and otherwise – is turned upside down,” said Rabbi Steve Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth. When Kol Emeth livestreams Shabbat services, “There is only me, the cantor, and the Torah reader, and we make sure
that none of us is closer than six feet away.”
Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser recently conducted a shivah service with only a woman and her two children present, but with more than 100 people gathered on 47 screens via the video conference platform Zoom, including children of the deceased, who were able talk about their father. “Despite the fact there’s physical separation, there doesn’t appear to be a physical or emotional disconnect because you’re there in real time,” said Nemhauser, who manages the Union of Reform Judaism’s “Introduction to Judaism” online and serves part-time at Congregation B’nai Israel in Fayetteville.
The experience is different when a service is livestreamed because the rabbi or cantor cannot see the congregants, but with video conference technology, “They’re actively participating, as opposed to you being outward facing and having no dynamic between you and your kehillah, your community,” said Nemhauser, who follows services streamed by Atlanta congregations and also leads her own minyan, using Zoom.
The experience has been poignant for clergy. On the myjewishlearning.com website, Rabbi Pamela Gottfried of Congregation Bet Haverim and the Your Jewish Bridge program, described leading a service for a congregation not physically present in the sanctuary.
Gottfried wrote, “I invite everyone to unmute, to say the names of the people they are remembering during kaddish, and to join in saying the prayer with me. I stand, facing the ark. The camera, computer, and candles are visible only in my peripheral vision. I am the only Jew in the room. We are all in the room together.”
Should there remain any in the Jewish community not taking appropriate or mandated actions, Emory University law professor and Rabbi Michael Broyde
published an open letter supporting the temporary closure of synagogues and “to encourage people to listen to the authorized governmental authorities.
“People need to be told directly that it is a sin – a serious sin and direct violation of profound and important values of halacha much more serious than any mitzva of communal prayer – to engage in activity that is a violation of public health regulations in times of pandemic,” Broyde wrote.
“Let me add that even a person who feels that he or she is not in any personal danger is still engaging in sinful conduct by defying public health authorities. A youthful and healthy person who has caught the virus might think they are in no personal danger at all (and might not even know that they are contagious) but that person is endangering others when they go about their public life. In truth, endangering yourself to fulfill a mitzvah is prohibited according to all but a few authorities,” he wrote.
Rabbi Ron Segal of Temple Sinai is also president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the organization of the Reform movement’s rabbis. CCAR canceled its annual convention in Baltimore, so Segal addressed his colleagues online and found reason to embrace the possibilities of technology.
“Throughout Jewish history, with every disruption in the world, rabbis have reshaped, redefined, and recreated Jewish life and expression to ensure Judaism’s survival and continued relevance. I know I am not the first to suggest that the time has come for us to do so again. … Though nothing can replicate the spiritual and
emotional significance of physically being together in community, or ever replace the efficacy of actually reaching out to hold the hand of someone in need, still, having employed new modalities to connect with and engage people throughout our communities, including those who had previously determined our congregations’ or organizations’ offerings were either too limited or not in their budget, having discovered new and creative ways to respond to the needs of our diverse community, we need to understand and greet this moment with an open-hearted and open-minded spirit, not with a sense of foreboding,” Segal urged his rabbinic colleagues.
Meanwhile, at Temple Sinai, on March 21, in the midst of the coronavirus chaos, Abby Simon became a bat mitzvah. “This was a date we received over three years ago. A day she diligently prepared for. A day we looked forward to with such joy and excitement. But one week before our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, the world screeched to a halt,” her mother, Rachel Simon, wrote on the website medium.com.
Abby insisted on going through with the bat mitzvah service. There would be no party. Those who could not attend in person would watch a livestream. “When the service ended we looked at our phones. We had hundreds of notifications — texts, emails, Facebook posts, Instagram tags and Snapchat stories. Abby was so overwhelmed, she started to cry. People sent us screenshots and videos of the service and pictures of them watching from home. We truly felt the power of community and it was inspiring!”
Then there was this, from the remarks that Abby’s parents read to her: “Many times throughout our history, Jews have been forced to chant Torah in isolation, quiet for fear of being punished. It would be easy to look at our strange circumstances today like that, but we are not. Instead, while the seats of this beautiful synagogue may not be filled, your family and friends from all the different parts of your life are here with you, virtually that is. We don’t know about you, but isolated is the last thing that we feel. I hope you feel the same way.”