Rabbi Daniel Schwartz reviews notes on his computer before getting ready to livestream a Friday night Shabbat service from inside Temple Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in West Bloomfield Township, Michigan, on March 27, 2020 amid a coronavirus disease (C

Religion

For rabbis trying to connect the faithful, lockdown creates Catch-22s

Some rabbis think videoconferencing technology such as Zoom is a good platform for bridging the gap during the pandemic. Others make the opposite case.

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Rabbi Daniel Schwartz reviews notes on his computer before getting ready to livestream a Friday night Shabbat service from inside Temple Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in West Bloomfield Township, Michigan, on March 27, 2020 amid a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak across the country.

Credit:

Emily Elconin/Reuters 

How can rabbis do their jobs in the time of the coronavirus?

Mayshe Schwartz, a rabbi based in Brookline, Massachusetts, says it’s complicated.

“Everything is different,” the 48-year-old said. “We don't have synagogue service. We don't have Torah readings, we don't have bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, weddings.”

Mayshe Schwartz, rabbi, Brookline, Massachusetts

“Everything is different,” the 48-year-old said. “We don't have synagogue service. We don't have Torah readings, we don't have bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, weddings.”

Related: For this year's Passover Seder, to Zoom or not to Zoom?

All over the globe, people are under lockdown in response to the coronavirus, which has killed more than 100,000 people worldwide. For religious leaders, all of the "stay-at-home" orders have created a lot of Catch-22s.  

For example, Jewish law requires a quorum of at least 10 people to create what’s called a minyan, or prayer group. A number of rabbis have been conducting services using videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom.

But Schwartz is an Orthodox rabbi who follows traditional Jewish law, known as Halakha, which prohibits use of electricity during the Sabbath and other holidays.

Related: Amid lockdown, churches find creative ways to keep in touch with the masses

Some people say the rules should be adjusted to allow for videoconferencing. Last month, a group of 14 Sephardic Orthodox rabbis in Israel published a letter permitting the use of technology to connect with elderly family members on the first night of Passover. Other religious authorities countered the ruling.

Schwartz, for his part, said he was telling his community it should be a personal choice. But those grappling with the question shouldn’t forget the deeper meaning of this time.

“The deeper calling is how do we experience freedom in a time where everyone is freaked out. Zoom wouldn't have helped the Jews if they were in Egypt … they still wanted to get out of Egypt.”

Mayshe Schwartz, rabbi, Brookline, Massachusetts

“The deeper calling is how do we experience freedom in a time where everyone is freaked out,” Schwartz said. “Zoom wouldn't have helped the Jews if they were in Egypt … they still wanted to get out of Egypt.”

For more than 2,000 years, Jews have gathered at the Seder table to retell the story of their emancipation from ancient Egypt. Under normal circumstances, Schwartz would have led a Seder of around 60 people. This year, for the first time, he celebrated with just his immediate family.

Related: Buddhist nun recommends calming the mind to cope with pandemic

The same was true for Rabbi Walter Rothschild, who is based in Berlin and works with Jewish communities in Poland and the German city of Hamburg. Even though he follows a more liberal interpretation of Judaism, he’s not a fan of Zoom.

“A screen is so inhuman,” Rothschild said. “We spend so much time in front of screens, but that’s not actually the real world. So, we have to be careful and remember a virtual world is not the same.”

But other rabbis are seeing an upside to streaming religious services.

“At the moment, it's been much greater attendance, much more enthusiasm.”

Joel Oseran, rabbi, Beth Hillel Congregation, Rome

“At the moment, it's been much greater attendance, much more enthusiasm,” said Rabbi Joel Oseran, who works with the Beth Hillel Congregation in Rome.

Related: Wajahat Ali on maintaining one's faith through crises

During last weekend’s Shabbat services, which he hosted on Zoom with around 100 people, he unmuted everyone’s sound so they could sing the Shema Yisrael, one of the most popular Shabbat prayers, together. 

“Even though they couldn’t even hear the words, they all knew what the words were and they felt that they were part of a group,” Oseran said.

Feeling like you’re part of a group has been one of biggest challenges for all of us, Oseran says. He plans to have his congregants continue to sing the Shema Yisrael together, until they can join hand in hand once again.

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