By Josh Joseph
Becoming a bar mitzvah during the COVID-19 pandemic is not ideal. But The Community Synagogue of Port Washington made it work for Zach Miller, who read from the Torah as his parents watched from the pews of the otherwise empty sanctuary.
“Wherever you are, I want you as loud as you can to say ‘mazel tov!’” Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz said through the microphone. On Facebook, Miller’s relatives concurred, typing out their congratulations in real time.
Bar and bat mitzvah services are just two of the many temple functions and religious activities that were halted by an order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo forcing all non-essential businesses in New York to temporarily close on March 20. Since then, The Community Synagogue, and many of the over 30 reform temples across Long Island, have moved services online, live-streaming through Facebook or offering group video conferences via Zoom. As New York’s COVID-19 cases soar, reaching nearly 76,000 on Tuesday, religious groups have tried to maintain a spiritual connection while protecting the health of their members.
“What’s lost is… the sense of physical presence,” Zeplowitz said. “But our traditions actually understood that there was a substitute for that when the temple no longer existed, which was prayer, good deeds, Torah and study. And so I think our traditions actually provide us an ability to understand how to behave in these crazy times.”
By moving online, many temples have preserved their core functions despite the physical constraints. Weekly Friday night services, marking the start of the day-long period of Shabbat, are streamed publicly from their websites. Some Hebrew schools have moved to remote instruction, and one-on-one bar and bat mitzvah training has been maintained through FaceTime and phone calls. Private weekly Torah studies have moved online as well.
“It’s important to come together at this time for all different sorts of reasons because it’s very easy to feel isolated,” Brad Hyman, a cantor at Temple Chaverim in Plainview, said. “But coming together during worship and looking out for those answers as a community in that way, is a very powerful moment, for a lot of people and for their clergy.”
Not all temple services can be seamlessly moved online, though. Shiva, the period of mourning that follows a passing in the Jewish community, usually involves forming a minyan, a group of ten, to lead in prayer at the home of the mourning family. Online, their presence is less tangible.
“It’s not that people can’t connect with people,” Todd Chizner, a rabbi at Temple Judea in Manhasset, said. “They just do it more individually. So people call people after there’s been a death. We had a passing and I had a hard time getting in touch with this family because their cell phone and their home phone were busy non-stop. It’s a good thing, but it’s just a difference.”
The new virtual format has also altered the structure and rituals of a traditional service, enabling new means of connection between temple members.
“There’s something very special about seeing everyone sitting in their home, because in Zoom you see everyone at the same time,” Chizner said. “We’re all very closed off usually. We come to synagogue and we’ll dress in a certain way and look a certain way, and we don’t care about that as much anymore. So there’s something that’s more inviting and genuine that I’m finding.”
Although audiences for these virtual services are often smaller, the response from congregants has been overwhelmingly positive, the clergy said.
“The prayers remind me to be grateful for the integrity and beauty of life — of nature, of love, of our communities,” Liv Musumeci, a member of West End Temple in Neponsit, said. “It’s so grounding to pray and carry traditions through times of crisis and chaos. It reminds me that we, as Jews, have prayed through worse, and that we, as Jews, have survived worse.”
Passover, the holiday celebrating the Jews’ escape from slavery in ancient Egypt, will begin on the evening of April 8. It will be the first major Jewish holiday to take place under these changed circumstances, and clergy are preparing accordingly.
“We’re going to be encouraging families to stay in their homes with the people they’ve been with, and not to have their extended family Seders, but to set up computers around the table and do Zoom or Skype and bring each other there,” Chizner said. “We’ll chuckle at it, because it’ll be funny looking at a computer screen, but… after a while you stop seeing the computer screen, and you just see the person.”
COVID-19, a plague of seemingly biblical proportions, may be remembered by future generations as part of a modern Passover story.