Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Synagogue in the Screen: A Socially Distant Love Letter

In the last 100 days, human relationships have been completely altered. In-person interactions have stopped, and work and social life have shifted online. Many of these changes will remain long after coronavirus is gone. Businesses are already planning to permanently reduce real estate and travel costs by incorporating more telecommuting and Zoom conferencing. But for synagogues, the shift to the virtual is far more complicated.

There is a joke from the 1990’s about an avid Atlanta Braves fan, Jack, who called his Rabbi before Yom Kippur. He said, "Rabbi, I know tonight is Kol Nidre, but the Braves are finally in the playoffs, and the first game is tonight. Rabbi, I’ve been waiting for this for years; I have to watch the game."

The Rabbi responds, "Jack, you can videotape it."

Jack loves the advice. “Rabbi, thank you so much! That is the perfect solution!” And after a pause Jack adds: “Rabbi, I never knew you could videotape Kol Nidre.”

Today, the possibility of a videotaped Kol Nidrei is no longer a punchline. We have been forced to move online, with Zoom services, classes, weddings and funerals. Our synagogue is now a synagogue in a screen. But there is no way of avoiding the fact that a virtual community is a community diminished. If man is by nature a “social animal,” Jews are communal animals. It is not enough to love your neighbor; the community must join together to visit the sick, comfort the mourners, bury the dead, celebrate with the bride and groom, and welcome visitors. None of these tasks lend themselves to being “phoned in.” Without an in-person connection, community withers. That is why ten people huddled in a small corner of a room constitute a minyan, but a thousand people on Zoom do not. As far as Halacha is concerned, a Zoom community is not a true community.

The spiritual inadequacies of video technology are most apparent in grief. My father-in-law, Joe Schwartz, passed away at the end of May. Due to Canadian travel regulations, there was no way for my wife, Lisa, and her sister in Philadelphia to return to Toronto in time for the funeral. A graveside service for a carefully limited group had to suffice; Joe’s daughters, relatives, and friends had to watch the funeral over Zoom. There was a bitter irony to this: Joe was a true community man, the first to greet a new face in synagogue, and the first to volunteer to help. And now a man who exemplified the personal touch was going to be memorialized in a remote service, at a great distance from his beloved family and friends. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote a responsa (OH 4:40:11) about visiting a Shiva with a phone call. He ruled that a phone call is an inferior way of comforting the mourners, and should only be used if one cannot visit in person. He explained that the Shiva is about respect and concern; and neither of those can be properly "phoned in."  But you don’t need to be a Rabbinic scholar to arrive at this conclusion; every coronavirus Shiva is silent testimony to how inadequate remote condolences are.

Yet there is another side to this. While Facetime and Zoom are hi-tech innovations, socially distant relationships are age old. Well before the electronic age, geographically distant young couples wrote each other love letters. The emotional power of the love letter is built on absence and loss. The words on the page struggle to take flight, hoping to deliver a long-distance embrace by pen and paper.

In the past three months, we have witnessed the flourishing of a new type of love letter.   Improvised communities and connections have emerged, offering love and support via smartphones and computers. The hurdles of social distancing are no match for the human heart.

Since the passing of my father-in-law, Lisa, her mother, and sisters have had a daily ritual. Each afternoon they connect on Facetime to talk and reminisce. At the end of the conversation, they fight back tears as they read the words of the Kaddish together. Listening in, it feels to me as if their words can reach from this world to the next. Despite being hundreds of miles apart, a family that loves each other can always be together. Love can skip over the mountaintops and leap over hills.

Some think that the shutdown of the last few months will undermine the synagogue. The assumption is that people have gotten used to staying at home, and that they will be content to continue sleeping late instead of attending services; and even those who want a religious experience will expect to sit on their couch and watch it on Zoom.

I think that the opposite is true. In the last three months, we have seen where our community's heart lies. We can take pride in how our community and so many others have held together, with Zooms, phone calls and volunteer drives.

The Synagogue in the screen is our community’s love letter, written by a congregation that can’t wait to see each other in person again.

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