Photo: Temple Emanu-El members arrive at the drive-through

Centuries of Jewish Tradition Shift to Online

Posted on September 18, 2020 by Louis Llovio, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Editor's Note: This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.

For thousands of Jewish people across the area, Rosh Hashana won't be celebrated tonight in the warm embrace of family and friends at their synagogue. Instead, the Jewish High Holidays will begin at home, in front of a computer screen.

The pandemic has changed many aspects of people's lives, from the way they shop for groceries to their work and the way they socialize with friends. Among the biggest changes is the way people worship and the way religious institutions have had to rethink how they reach worshipers. That change will be unmistakable tonight, the start of the Jewish new year, when centuries of tradition shift online.

The Jewish High Holidays are Rosh Hashana, which begins at sundown today, and Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, ten days from now.

"If I didn't have the computer, I would be in big trouble," said 88-year-old Julie Atlas of Sarasota, who's begun using Zoom to attend classes and services. "I prefer having the company of everybody in person. I miss everybody very much. But this is the next best thing, so I accept it for what it is. Since I was young, I've attended synagogue. To be without it would be devastating for me."

When the pandemic first began to shut down businesses and keep people in their homes in March, religious leaders turned their attention to reaching and maintaining their vital connection to worshipers.

That meant learning how to stream services online, teach classes on Zoom, and hand out communion to a line of cars. It meant moving from holding a worshiper's hand at a time of need to sending a reassuring text or placing a phone call.

Rabbis have created studios in their home offices. Pastors have mailed their sermons. Leaders of all faiths have reached out to help teach older worshipers how to log on and worship in a whole new way.

"We're trying our best. We know it's not perfect," Rabbi Jennifer Singer of Congregation Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota, said this week.

"But as long as we can help people on both their communal spiritual journey and their personal spiritual journey, that's the North Star I keep coming back to. How can I help people have the highest experience they can and help them fulfill the needs that they have?"

Singer said the best way to connect with her congregants has been through Zoom. She's used the online tool to hold services and teach classes as well as reach out to congregants.

One happy surprise, she said, is that congregants who only live in the area part of the year are logging in and participating from their homes up north.

"It's worked in ways that we never expected," Singer said. "I don't want to think of this as a hardship. I want to think about this as an opportunity to do really cool things that are appreciated by folks.

One big component of making this new approach to worship work is getting older congregants the tools and instruction they need to participate.

Rabbi Elaine Glickman at Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota said there was a huge concern that older people who were lonely and isolated in the best of times would be left behind when the primary way to access community was through technology.

So, starting right after the switch was made to go online, Emanu-El congregants began to call those who were homebound to check on them, a practice that's continued.

She said teams of volunteers have worked with older congregants, sometimes spending hours on the phone, helping them understand how to access live-streamed services and Zoom classes.

The transition hasn't always been easy, but, she said, a lot of progress has been made. One example: A congregant who was able to attend her first Zoom social on her 90th birthday.

"I wouldn't say that it's been seamless because some of the technology is difficult to access," Glickman said. "But one of the things that's always been special about Temple Emanu-El is that it's a very close, very warm, cohesive, welcoming community. Being able to maintain that has been seamless."

For some rabbis, the technology is a valuable tool, but it is not a tool to be used during Rosh Hashana and the High Holidays.

Rabbi Levi Steinmetz of Chabad of Downtown Sarasota said that electronics aren't allowed on the Sabbath or the High Holidays in traditional Judaism. He said that while a tool like Zoom could be helpful given the current situation, "we don't make changes on a whim."

That is because one strength of conservative Judaism, he said, is that his great, great, great, great-grandfather would be able to walk into a synagogue today and follow the service.

Given the reality of COVID and the restrictions it's brought, Steinmetz said he's told congregants that it's alright to stay home on Rosh Hashana if they don't feel safe. And he doesn't begrudge others who chose to use electronics to worship. But Chabad will hold an in-person service that upholds safety protocols.

"We don't just decide, 'let's make an exception and use Zoom.' Because in traditional Judaism we follow what was cast down from generation to generation," Steinmetz said. "If we were able to make decisions based on our own judgment, everyone would have their own religion. We would not be one coherent body."

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