As New Jersey synagogues slowly reopen, I wonder about the future of mine, Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. Reopen? It seems to me we never actually closed. Instead, thanks to Zoom (and our clergy, staff, and volunteers), we simply relocated and welcomed God into our living rooms, kitchens, porches, and patios.
The first time I “went” to Shabbat morning services during the pandemic was late March. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never gone to shul by sitting on the living room sofa, wearing slippers, and balancing an iPad on my lap.
I arrived early to see our social hall, rather than our sanctuary, on the screen. Bereft of people congregating, it appeared sterile and downright eerie. Yet, Rabbi David Greenstein marched purposefully into the stark room, singing, “Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh,” how awesome is this place.
“It’s good to be here,” he continued. “It’s good to be alive.” He scrubbed his hands, washing away the week’s grime, then washed again and recited the blessing said over a ritual hand wash.
Suddenly, I was embarrassed to be wearing slippers to shul.
The rabbi breathed words of gratitude into the room. He thanked all the essential workers — from doctors to supermarket staff. He sang Modeh Ani, explaining that it’s not enough to thank God for returning one’s soul each morning; rather, we need God’s help to make something good of it. I say this prayer every morning, but never understood the deeper meaning.
Over the ensuing weeks and months, we gleaned wisdom from words of the Torah and the Prophets. Whether we are building a tabernacle or embarking on a journey to the Promised Land, we must learn to protect life and to love thy neighbor as thyself. It’s that simple — and complicated.
I try to attend our online services weekly. I say Shabbat Shalom to my friends in the Zoom chat box that appears on the right side of my iPad, the same place we exchange condolences and mazel tovs, and where someone “announces” page numbers. The keyboard is now the conduit to sharing life’s rhythms. Normally, I would whisper the names of those suffering from illness, as the rabbi catches my eye. Now I type their names into the Misheberach list, wondering whether God will be more attentive if I write in capital letters.
Virtual davening has made it easy to keep track of time. We counted the Omer. We blessed new months. We started and finished books of the Torah. With knots in our stomachs, we watched the number of Covid-19 deaths rise astronomically. Then we watched them fall in the tristate area, only to soar in other parts of the country. More recently, we counted the number of black people killed by police, and the number of protests worldwide.
The changing seasons and the later sunsets also help mark the passage of time. I notice these subtle changes, particularly during Friday night services. As we sing the familiar melodies, I appreciate the longer days and greener trees. I am glad that nature has not disappointed me.
At Kabbalat Shabbat services, our rabbinic intern, Morah Lily Lucey, greets us with her radiant smile, and asks everyone to think of something wonderful from the previous week. While I am drowning in worry, I appreciate her gentle reminder. I smile when I remember a FaceTime with a friend, and the garden flowers that surprised me.
Lucey encourages everyone to sing with her, although, as we are muted on Zoom, her soothing voice is the only one we hear. A few weeks ago, she sang Lecha Dodi to the tune of “We Shall Overcome,” and we all sang along, which I could tell because everyone’s mouths were moving.
As we eventually find our new “normal,” I reflect on what Pandemic Judaism 101 has taught me. Sure, I miss the physical sanctuary — holding the Torah, sitting next to someone, shaking hands, and hugging. I miss the way the sunlight dances on the stained-glass windows. Oh, how I miss the “singing table” at Kiddush after services on Saturday mornings.
Remote Jewish life has taught me that Judaism can be alive and well in my personal space. I may appear on the screen like the children’s book character Flat Stanley, but there’s nothing one-dimensional about my kavanah, intention, at a weekly service, shiva minyan, or funeral.
We’ve come a long way from Exodus, Chapter 25, when God gives Moses instructions on how to build a portable sanctuary. My tabernacle doesn’t have acacia wood or gold rims and rings, no cherubs in my Mishkan.
My holy space has my iPad or iPhone, and when the screen prompts me to “Join meeting,” I tap the link and am ready to pray. I thank God that another week has gone by and my family is healthy and safe. “Ma Norah HaMakom HaZeh” — how awesome is this place.
Merrill Silver is an ESL teacher at JVS of MetroWest in East Orange.