In Temple Emanuel’s Gann Chapel, Friday evening’s “Shabbat Alive!” service proceeds as it has every week since its inception in 2007. Every member of the clergy is dressed in some variation of tallit and kippah and the bimah features its typical cast of characters. However, the pews are desolate, only occupied by various Hebrew prayer books.
These texts will not be touched for the foreseeable future as Emanuel, as well as religious institutions around Newton and the country, respond to the outbreak of COVID-19. In Massachusetts, “stay-at-home” advisories, the closure of “nonessential” businesses and the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people has completely altered how religion can be practiced. Usually reliant upon physical gatherings for weekly services, Emanuel now live streams all of its prayer activities, including daily minyans and Shabbat services.
Governor Charlie Baker has had his share of time behind the podium over the last few weeks. He has served as the face behind the state’s response to the outbreak, issuing nearly all advisories, regulations and rules in the attempt to mitigate the outbreak in Massachusetts. On the evening of Friday, March 20, he stood on a different kind of podium, a bimah, in Newton, with no pressing public health announcement to make, no state of emergency to declare. Only the clergy of Temple Emanuel were in true “attendance,” but over 600 congregants watched the service via livestream and an additional few hundred tuned in on Facebook Live.
“I think one of the cruelest elements of this virus that we’re dealing with these days is the profound contagiousness of it and the fact that to deal with it, one of the things we do is we separate ourselves from some of those traditional moments that our gatherings that are made up of,” said Baker. “I’m glad that your congregation has a chance to at least pull themselves in a little bit into this Temple, which I’m sure means so much to them, at this time, all the time, but especially now.”
The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced institutions of all kinds to redefine what it means to be “together.” Nearly all in-person activities, ranging from college lectures, to yoga classes, to prayer services have either been moved online or canceled altogether.
Temple Shalom, a reform Jewish congregation located in West Newton, has shuttered its doors to all except its rabbis and cantors, who conduct services in the empty space. Although their physical space remains unoccupied, Executive Director Ellie Klein Goldman said that through community outreach and virtual programming, the synagogue continues to provide a sense of community in this unsure time.
“It’s really not the same as being all in one place, but we have found that people were just really anxious for connection and that opportunities for connections are really limited right now, so what we have been doing, folks are expressing a lot of gratitude about it for sure,” Goldman said.
Temple Shalom relies largely on Zoom and Facebook Live to connect with the members of its congregation. Unlike Facebook Live and livestream, Zoom allows “face to face” interactions and active participation from users. According to Goldman, far more people than she expected have been engaging in those larger group “gatherings” via Zoom.
“It’s really fun to be able to see everyone’s collective reaction at seeing each other, that’s the beauty of that really tiny screen of screens,” said Goldman. “It’s been really a little bit of a silver lining in a very difficult situation.”
Robin Welch, 53, is on the board of Temple Beth Avodah, a reform temple in Newton, and has been a member of the congregation for the last ten years. She said that one of the biggest parts of being a member of any Jewish congregation is feeling connected to the community and that Beth Avodah is doing a “wonderful job” of providing that connection virtually.
“I would say that there were probably more than 75 different households that tuned in to the virtual Zoom call for our Friday night services,” Welch said. “It was pretty amazing because on a typical Friday night, I don’t think we would have 75 households represented at the congregation in person.”
Welch said that she thought that there was an uptick in virtual participation for two reasons: the congregants wanted connection to their community and connection to something that makes them feel a sense of comfort and hope in an uncertain time.
“For many, religion provides both of those,” said Welch. “Clearly, no one knows the answers, but there’s a sense of gratitude for what we do have and a sense of understanding and compassion for those who are suffering. To be able to say prayers for those who are on the front lines, dealing with this and for those who are sick, it feels like we’re being given the opportunity to do something to help in that way.”
Temple Emanuel, one of the largest conservative Jewish congregations in New England, has closed its building for all but streaming daily morning and evening minyan services and Shabbat programming. The actions of Emanuel, along with Shalom and Beth Avodah, follow Governor Baker’s announcement on Monday, March 23, that shuttered all businesses that do not provide “COVID-19 essential services,” which went into effect Tuesday, March 24.
However, Emanuel had moved to virtual services days before Monday’s announcement. Senior Rabbi Michelle Robinson sent out an e-mail to the congregation on March 12 that detailed the clergy’s decision to move their services to an online platform. In addition to online services, the temple is offering a number of initiatives to provide support for members and for the community at large, including a phone tree check-in with elderly members, volunteer opportunities, and a COVID-19 relief fund.
“Community is the foundation of Jewish life. Whether it is coming together for minyan, gathering to learn, or simply to share a Shabbat meal, a core principle of Jewish life is that we do it together,” read the March 12 e-mail. “But our tradition also teaches, ‘U’vacharta B’Chayim,’ ‘Choose life.’ Our ancient rabbis passed down to us through the generations a sacred obligation that in times of threat to health and safety, the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, preserving life, must be our guide.”
After a few weeks of virtual programming, Robinson said that she, along with the congregation of Emanuel, believe that Jewish services and tradition can function virtually, something they are experiencing every day.
Jessica Poscover, 45, is a member of Temple Emanuel. She said that she and her family used to attend services maybe once or twice a month. She said that when she heard about the livestreams, she thought it would be a nice way to bring some routine into her household, but quickly became surprised at how much it affected her.
“It’s more than just watching services, it is really providing a lot of comfort and connection and really inspiration during a very scary, fearful and uncertain time,” Poscover said. “It’s been a wonderful experience and sometimes the highlight of our day here, to be honest with you. It’s been more meaningful than we expected."
Zoe Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.