Prayer, pandemic, community, change
December 03, 2020
1. Completely unprepared
Nothing in my previous rabbinic life had prepared me for standing at a significant distance from a small number of congregants and family members, wearing three kinds of PPE (an N95, a fabric mask, and a face shield), doors open to the cold air, with my laptop open on the Torah table so the community could join us via Zoom and FB Live, telling those assembled in the room that they were not allowed to sing along with me and would need to pray silently in their souls and in their hearts.
We were there to call a kid to Torah as bar mitzvah. He did beautifully: not only with his Torah reading and his d'var, but also with all of the uncertainties of this surreal year. This post isn't about him. (Though if he's reading this: mazal tov, kid, you rocked it and it was a privilege to teach you.) This post is about what it's like to serve as clergy in this pandemic time, trying to serve in circumstances we aren't -- and couldn't have -- trained for. This post is about navigating pandemic and change.
2. Holy at Home
When my congregation was planning for this year's Days of Awe, someone asked: would I lead prayer from the shul, with a select few people to make a minyan, while everyone else davened at home? I didn't want to do it that way, for a few reasons. One is that if we're in person, no one in the room can sing, and singing is one of the primary ways I know to open the heart and activate the soul. I especially can't imagine the Days of Awe without the heart-lifting melodies and nusach unique to that holy season.
Another is that I lead a different service in person than online. When we're in the room together, we use a bound book. When we're on Zoom, we use a set of screenshare slides that I created explicitly for this purpose, with images and embedded video. Online I want to "lean in" and take advantage of what the technology offers us, rather than doing exactly what I would do in shul (which I think would fall flat, because we're not in shul; simply duplicating what I do there would highlight what we've lost.)
Most of all I wanted to uplift the lived experience of seeking and finding holiness in our homes. That's why I titled the machzor "Holy at Home." Because that's the work of this pandemic moment: making holiness where we are. Making community where we are, despite the physical distance between us. There is holiness in a dining table or a coffee table or a television screen with the Zoom siddur on it. When we open our hearts and souls, we can create holiness, we can create community, wherever we are.
This is the work of our moment: finding holiness and community in this pandemic-sparked diaspora from our synagogues to our homes. And yet, that paradigm doesn't quite work for a celebration of b-mitzvah. At least, not if the kid is reading from a physical Torah scroll, and if we're operating under the classical halakhic paradigm that says we need ten adult Jews in person to open said scroll. If that's our frame, in order to call a kid to Torah as a new Jewish adult we need to bring people together.
3. The room where it happens
The last time I had led davenen in the synagogue was for a bar mitzvah back in March. (Immediately after that Shabbat, we closed our building.) Ten people were in the room, socially distanced. We used our regular siddur, and those who were joining us on Zoom or Facebook Live did their best to follow along with the Kindle version of the book. We didn't yet know then what we know now about aerosols and ventilation, so we didn't know to prop doors open, or that singing posed an unacceptable risk.
Thank God, no one got sick after the March bar mitzvah. And all of our later-spring celebrations of b-mitzvah were postponed. Some for a full year. And one until this fall. Last spring, it seemed so clear that by fall we would have vanquished this virus and would be able to gather safely again. No one imagined seven months ago that we would be watching global cases tick upwards again now, or that anti-mask rhetoric and "plandemic" lies would facilitate the virus' spread in such horrendous ways.
But as autumn approached, it became clear that this celebration of bar mitzvah would need to be mostly Zoom-based, with only a small number of people in the room... and that we would need to take precautions we didn't know to take, last time we celebrated a kid coming-of-age like this. The doors would need to be propped open. We would all need to be masked, me triply so. And I would need to begin the morning by saying something I never imagined needing to say: friends, please don't sing.
4. Keeping us aloft
When I'm leading davenen in a room full of people, I'm always balancing between pouring my heart into the prayers (if I can't really feel what they mean, then I can't lead others to feel it either) and trying to attune myself to who's in the room. Are they with me, are they engaged, are they moved? Do I need to pause for a word of explanation or a moment of humor? What vocal or musical choice will draw them in and lift them up? Are they smiling, are they crying, what can I read in their bodies and faces?
When I'm leading davenen online, my screenshare siddur and screenshare machzor have built-in 'face to face' slides where I pause the screenshare -- we wave to each other, we beam at each other, we connect through our cameras in the placeless place of our hearts' togetherness. (This is a practice that R' David Markus and I developed for the Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton in June, a weekend focused on themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.)
Leading "hybrid" prayer -- with most of the people on Zoom, and a few in person -- turns out to be exponentially more difficult than either leading a room full of people, or leading a streaming community in prayer. I was multiply-masked, which created a feeling of distance (and made it hard for some to hear me.) I couldn't rely on in-person cues like smiles, or how enthusiastically people were singing along, because I couldn't see their smiles and I had to instruct them to refrain from singing with me.
At the autumn bar mitzvah, the family wanted me to sing, even if no one else was allowed to. I'm pretty sure I don't have COVID-19, but I wore two masks and a face shield to protect them as best I could, just in case I'm an asymptomatic carrier. But the masks meant that it was hard for people to hear me. I felt a little bit like I was wearing a space suit. And because I had to forbid the room from singing with me at all, it felt a little bit like I was performing for them, rather than praying with them.
In rabbinic school we used to joke about services where the rabbi is the airline pilot responsible for flying the plane, and those in the pews are just passengers -- or theatre-goers, sitting back and watching a show that the rabbi puts on for them. That's not how I aspire to serve. I want everyone in the room to feel empowered to participate. Keeping us all aloft is something we do together. But I don't have the skillset to help that happen in a hybrid space where those in-person can't sing. Does anyone?
And, of course, there's anxiety. Cases of COVID-19 are rising all over the country and around the world. I'm a multiple stroke survivor with asthma and hypertension; of course I'm afraid. But I'm not only afraid for myself. I'm afraid for those whom I serve. Especially for older folks and those who are immunocompromised. And what about unwittingly spreading the virus to others? Even if I'm the only one in the room singing. I want to lift my voice to God; I don't want my voice to be a weapon.
For the bar mitzvah, we made the best choices we could. The doors were propped open and the HVAC system was turned off. The family members who were present were masked and socially distanced, and everyone else participated remotely. We printed the slides for those who were physically present, so they had the same materials in front of them as the Zoom / FB community. I think that what we did was meaningful for the bar mitzvah boy. I suspect he'll remember his pandemic bar mitzvah forever.
And I found it challenging to lead prayer under those circumstances. The emotional and spiritual split-screen experience of trying to lead prayer for a few people in the room and a lot of people remotely, with the in-person folks masked and obligated to stay silent, from behind the space-suit-helmet of a plastic shield and two masks, isn't easy. It's hard to create a meaningful experience for those in the room or at home when no one can read my lips or see my smile. And my voice quavered; I was afraid.
6. Next time
As I think forward to future pandemic b-mitzvah celebrations, I'm pondering bringing the Torah scroll to the b-mitzvah kid's home so they can read from it there while I, and everyone else, connect via Zoom. If I believe that telepresence is real (and I do -- or at least, I believe that it can be, if we bring our hearts and souls to it) then why would I privilege the old paradigm of gathering bodies together in a room during a global pandemic? Better to change our definition of minyan to include telepresence.
Some will say we mustn't set that precedent. Because if telepresence is "good enough" during a pandemic, then as a community we could easily lose the habit of gathering in person at all. What's to say then that someone can't just choose to tele-daven forever, because it's more convenient than going somewhere? What does that do to the fabric of our communities? I hear that anxiety, and I honor it. And... that anxiety for the future doesn't change the steps we need to take to protect each other now.
I know that when we gather a minyan from ten separate homes on Shabbes morning, I feel genuinely connected with my community even though we're not sharing a room or breathing the same air together. And I know that when I balance actual risk to people's lives against putative risk to the continuity of how our communities are accustomed to functioning, lives are more important. I believe Jewish values call us to seek to save lives, even if that means setting a paradigm shift in motion.
7. Building anew
If gathering ten people on Zoom from ten houses is a real minyan, then that's true whether it's "just Shabbes" or a celebration of b-mitzvah. It may not be ideal... but neither is global pandemic. I know that reading Torah from home, with immediate family / quarantine podmates in the room and everyone else on Zoom, may not be what any kid or family wants the celebration of b-mitzvah to be. And yet it may be what the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, preserving and protecting life, asks of us in this time.
I miss what some now call "the beforetimes," when we could gather together without fear of harming each other. When we could embrace or clasp hands or just be near each other without fear for ourselves, or each other, or the others with whom we are in contact. When we could lift our voices and sing in harmony. (God I miss harmony!) My soul yearns to sing in harmony with beloveds, maybe with a hug or a clasped hand. I yearn for that the way our spiritual forebears in exile yearned for Jerusalem.
And right now we're in exile from our former in-person togetherness, and we don't know how long that will last, or how exile will change the Judaism to which we yearn to return. It may be that this pandemic, or the realities of a century that may contain multiple pandemics, will change Judaism in ways we can't yet know. How do we yearn for what we used to have, and hope with all our hearts for that to be restored, while also building new structures to sustain us in what's unfolding now and new?