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New Shabbat pandemic practices may have staying power
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New Shabbat pandemic practices may have staying power

Research by Princeton University reveals ‘engaging and meaningful’ rituals

Princeton University student Amital Haas researched alternative Shabbat practices during the pandemic. Photo by Netta Haas
Princeton University student Amital Haas researched alternative Shabbat practices during the pandemic. Photo by Netta Haas

The Shabbat observances of Amital Haas’ family are evolving during the pandemic. Haas, a rising senior at Princeton University majoring in anthropology, completed her semester at home living with her parents and five siblings in Cleveland.   

She described the pre-pandemic Shabbat traditions in her modern Orthodox family as “pretty communal and structured” — including prayer services Friday night and Shabbat morning in synagogue, and festive meals at home with guests, or as guests in the homes of friends.

“That’s the bones of Shabbat,” she told NJJN in a phone interview. “Everything else fills in around those large, established events that happen every week.” 

But these days, with synagogues closed and social distancing in place, Shabbat with her family has taken a different shape.

“It’s been interesting to see how my family has altered its routines and tried to establish new rituals and norms when the communal structure is not there,” Haas said.

As her family sought evolution in their Shabbat rituals, she became curious about how other people were navigating theirs. She decided to delve into the topic, interviewing 20 Jews of varying ages and across denominations who observe Shabbat in some way, and wrote a research paper for an anthropology class that looks at changes in Shabbat experiences across Jewish movements in the United States and Israel.

“Everybody has been appreciating certain aspects of Shabbat that they hadn’t been able to appreciate previously,” she said.

In Ohio, the Haas family has tried to mimic the prayer services they would normally attend by singing the Kabbalat Shabbat portion of the Friday evening davening together, and taking turns reading parts of the morning service or chanting the weekly Torah portion.

For her part, Haas has been pushing her family to try something that might be more appropriate for the present circumstances by including a discussion, reading parts of the service in English, or even reading a smaller section of Torah to facilitate a focus on content.

“Since we have the freedom to redefine, it may serve us well to reimagine services in a way that is more engaging and meaningful during this period when we don’t have the standard communal services,” she said.

All of Haas’ subjects told her they felt something was missing from their Shabbat experience, such as communal prayer, social time with friends and family, or a sense of spiritual uplift. One interviewee misses the structure that Shabbat provides, feeling in its absence a void that isn’t experienced during the week.

Jews across denominations are using technology to keep communal life flourishing, but for those in Orthodox and some Conservative congregations, video conferencing apps are prohibited on Shabbat and holidays. Some told Haas that not using technology was a “blessing” while others said it made them feel isolated. And one non-halachically observant Jew told Haas she stopped using technology on Shabbat during the pandemic in order to spend more time with family.

Overall, the individuals she interviewed expressed mixed reactions to live prayer services that are streamed via videoconferencing apps such as Zoom.

“People said they appreciated the fact that there were communal services, but that they didn’t feel much like the real thing,” Haas said.

Nonetheless, some people did report that they had been part of “spiritually moving and extremely uplifting online services,” crediting community leaders who “really tried to play to the advantages of the technical platform they used and not stick exactly to how the service would usually look.”

For instance, one rabbi urged members to go outside to greet Shabbat during the singing of “Lecha Dodi” on Friday evening, and another replaced communal singing, which can be challenging to coordinate with delays on Zoom, with having various members share thoughts and reflections.

“Community members have been willing to reimagine what Shabbat will look like on this new platform,” said Haas. “That is allowing services to be meaningful in new ways, even if they can’t replicate what it was like before the pandemic.”

Accessibility was reported as another perk of technology. It allows people to attend services anywhere that utilize streaming, including their childhood synagogues or one “they’ve always wanted to attend but never could,” Haas told NJJN. Plus it gives those who are raising young children access to services with the convenience of remaining at home.

Haas observed that the changes they’ve been forced to make because of the pandemic could build empathy for women in Orthodox communities; under normal circumstances, some women feel marginalized because their religious obligations are different than those of men.

“Coronavirus is putting everyone in that position of being distanced from community experiences,” Haas said, and she hopes that when Jewish communal life begins to normalize, “these developments have the potential to encourage greater interest in dialogue on the importance of accessibility.”

Another positive outcome of quarantine and social distancing she found since her research is that since Shabbat is no longer filled with attending services and entertaining, there was widespread agreement that “Shabbat has become a more calm and family-oriented time.”

All of her interviewees are already thinking about which new rituals they’d consider keeping even after the pandemic. One young adult from a Reform background said she has enjoyed Friday night meals with her parents and now expects these meals will replace attending synagogue services as the central focus of her Shabbat experiences. 

“The fact that people are being forced to adjust their religious practices is opening their minds to other ways Shabbat can look like,” Haas said. “As things transition back, people will remember these other modalities of Shabbat, and maybe there are things they will carry with them.”

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