Joel Sisenwine knew he wanted to be a rabbi from a young age. He never imagined it would also lead him to a career on the big screen. But that is where he found himself two Fridays ago as he and Cantor Jodi Sufrin led Shabbat services while standing in an empty sanctuary at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. In these early days of “social distancing,” Rabbi Sisenwine invited the congregation to join in from home via the live stream. I know this because I am a member of Temple Beth Elohim and have been a part of this new form of communal prayer.
I asked Rabbi Sisenwine if TBE had ever suspended Shabbat services before.
“In all of my years, there was only one service that we missed,” said Sisenwine. “And that was following the Boston Marathon bombing because of the Shelter in Place order.”
Communities everywhere are searching for ways to connect during the coronavirus pandemic. Particularly challenged are houses of worship where weekly communal gathering for prayer is fundamental to their relevance. Though Temple Beth Elohim began by using their live stream technology for the weekly prayer ritual, Rabbi Sisenwine went into the second week looking for something more.
For this past Friday’s Shabbat services, all five prayer leaders led their congregation from a completely new platform. Rather than standing shoulder to shoulder surrounded by several hundred members, the three rabbis and two cantors each sat alone inside a small two-dimensional box arrayed across the top of a computer screen powered by Zoom, the videoconferencing app that many of us know from our workplaces.
This is how my temple is handling worship in the time of COVID-19.
Rabbi Sisenwine’s decision to use Zoom for the second week of Shabbat was in response to what he began to hear. He noticed that people’s anxiety shifted from concerns about getting sick and facing financial uncertainty to a deeper fear of social distancing. This was familiar territory.
“These are questions that religion has always dealt with,” said Sisenwine. “How do I live my life and live it meaningfully, sharing it with others. And how do I live a life where I can be surrounded by community, friends, people who care about me...and God.”
To Sisenwine and the other clergy, the live stream of the first week solely provided a passive, one-way version of rituals that derive their true power through relationship. Rabbi Sisenwine hoped that by switching to Zoom – where congregants can see each other – fears of social isolation would be lessened.
In addition to making people nervous, social distancing directly conflicts with Halacha – or Jewish Law. There are a set of Jewish prayers that may only be recited in the presence of a minyan or group of ten. One is the Kaddish or Mourner’s prayer.
TBE member Glenda Ganem’s mother passed away in late January. As a daughter, Ganem recites the Kaddish every week for eleven months. She felt lost upon learning of the first week’s live stream Shabbat services.
“I sent a message right away to our rabbi asking, ‘how do you say Kaddish without a community?’” said Ganem. “And he responded, ‘In a pandemic, we say Kaddish wherever we are.’”
And she did. In her car, on the side of the highway watching a glorious sunset and feeling her mother’s presence. During this past week’s Zoom Shabbat service, Ganem was comforted by the images of the clergy and her many friends and Beth Elohim community.
In some ways, the coronavirus pandemic demands the same as the Kaddish. With the individual loss of freedom of movement and schedules, the potential loss of salaries and safety and health, and with societal connectivity abruptly interrupted, we need a reminder that we are connected by others to a community.
Rachel Rock is a Boston University journalism student and a former WGBH News intern.