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Exclusively Virtual Shuls

Ellen writes:

Way back in time, when the Temple fell, we weren’t just scattered; we also lost our very centralized form of worship, and the need for a priesthood, and Judaism changed radically in response.

Thousands of years later, COVID has forced us from our physical synagogues, and how we worship, celebrate, and observe has had to change radically. We have been dispersed to our homes, even as our buildings still stand. How does our community change, absent a physical space? When COVID is a memory, what will have changed? How will our sense of community change? What will be the role of our buildings and physical institutions?

Most synagogues have switched to virtual or streaming services and programs in response to the pandemic. Many had already been streaming their services to some extent for the past while. After the first flurry of hurried responses that moved only what seemed essential online, many of our institutions have become more far-reaching and intentional about what they are offering remotely.

When I talk to friends, family, and co-members of my temple (Temple Har Zion in Thornhill), it seems that everyone has some things they sorely miss, but others that they hope will continue virtually in some form, once COVID isn’t the main consideration in deciding how things should be done.

There are some synagogues that were never rooted in one place. Some are deliberately “without walls” – their programs are scattered among different places within one area. Some are virtual-only; there is never a time when members are together physically, and everything happens online.

I believe that as we think about what the Institutional part of our Judaism will look like in the future, these congregations’ experiences can be informative.

I reached out to the rabbis of some of these shuls and asked them three questions:

What challenges does your form of shul solve for your members?

How do you build community with your model? And

What are your challenges as a synagogue?

Some of the rabbis who responded also generously answered some of my other questions in follow-up, adding even more insight.

I had online conversations with the Rabbis of three virtual

Synagogues – shuls whose members meet and worship exclusively online.

The House of Seven Beggars (http://sevenbeggars.com/ may be the granddaddy – or Zaide, if you will - of virtual shuls; it was started 16 years ago by Rabbi Aryel Nachman Ben Chaim. Rabbi Nachman’’s orientation is Chassidic, and the synagogue is very traditional, but welcomes everyone.

Services, stories, and Torah Study are broadcast via Youtube, and there are members’ and Sisterhood’s Facebook groups as well. As you would expect in a traditional site, there are instructions on how to stream services without breaking Halachah. Given the makeup of the House of Seven Beggars, Rabbi Nachman is seldom called on to prepare or officiate at life-cycle events, but he says that “if they have need, we will do what we can to accommodate them.”

Secular Synagogue is a Humanist Secular virtual shul, which was begun in August of 2018 by its Rabbi, Denise Handlarski, who was ordained within the Secular Humanist movement. They say they are “Online on purpose”, and according to their website, the focus is on “online Jewish learning, social justice, discussion, and creative, supportive community”, through Zoom, social media, and email. There are also web resources to support at-home practices and Shabbat observance. Life cycle events and preparation are handled by Rabbi Handlarski individually.

CyberSynagogue (https://www.cybersynagogue.com/) was founded by Rabbi/Cantor Stephanie Shore in response to the pandemic. (If you want to visit their site, beware – there is a site with a similar name, but it’s hyphenated, and it’s a “messianic” site. This is not that.) Rabbi Shore was a long-time cantor at a large Reform synagogue and was ordained as a Rabbi within the Jewish Universalist movement. There is no particular denomination mentioned on the website, although the worship melodies offered are common Reform melodies. There are weekly Zoom Shabbat services, and mid-week Meditation sessions. Their motto is “You’re always at home.” Rabbi Shore works with families individually to prepare for life-cycle events.

What challenges does your form of shul solve for your members?

Seven Beggars: Rabbi Nachman began Seven Beggars when a member of his former shul landed in a long-term care facility and attending became very difficult. From there, realizing there was a real need, he went on to create Seven Beggars “with the mission to reach out and reconnect our seniors and others who could not attend a physical shul to a real Jewish community.” Today, his estimate is that about half the membership is home-bound, and another 40% are distant from a physical shul. About a tenth are “baalei teshuvah”, looking to get comfortable with this traditional form of observance before moving on to a physical community. Membership relies on voluntary donations, which makes this accessible for those on fixed or limited incomes.

Secular Synagogue: Rabbi Handlarski says they “provide a Jewish home for people who have no nearby options”, feel marginalized in some way, or identify as secular or cultural Jews. The goal is to “enrich the lives of members and make them better instruments of justice in the world.” The website states: “Jewish, Jew-ish, Intermarried, In-married, Unmarried, Secular, Cultural, Atheist, Agnostic, Seeker, Spiritual... If you are a cultural/secular Jew, someone who is becoming a Jew, partnered with a Jew, or otherwise Jewishly engaged, and want to connect to Jewish wisdom, ideas and community, this is the place for you!”

Cyber Synagogue: First and foremost, Rabbi Shore says that, in this time of pandemic, “There is a comfort level of attending synagogue in the safety of one’s own home.” She adds that the lower level of expenses is also a factor. The website stresses that CyberSynagogue’s aim is to be accessible to all, and a safe place to “experience, heal and grow as a spiritual being”. “We welcome people from ALL walks of life, and are open and inclusive of the recovery community, the LBGTQ community and interfaith families.”

How do you build community with your model?

At Seven Beggars, Rabbi Nachman says that the members, rather than he, have built a sense of community, by interacting in live chats and through the Facebook groups. He monitors and responds to chats, and phones or emails members who need some other support or contact.

At Secular Synagogue, Rabbi Handlarski makes it a point of pride to engage with every post in the group. The private Facebook group is where much of the interaction happens, with content co-created

by members. There are mitzvah challenges, book discussions, among other activities. On Zoom, members attend and interact in Services, book groups, and study. They also engage in one-to-one study partnerships.

At CyberSynagogue, Rabbi Shore reports that a sense of community is built by sharing before and after Services, and deliberately including people in their programs or services. She adds, “People had wondered if there would be a cold, sterile feeling from attending virtual services and programs however the feedback has been overwhelmingly the opposite. Congregants comment how there is an intimate and warm feeling. .. It is wonderful to witness.”

What are your challenges as a synagogue?

At CyberSynagogue, Rabbi Shore says that the challenges so far have been mainly around the technology – specifically, members getting familiar and comfortable with the Skype platform which they use. She adds that she has an assistant who helps users through these challenges.

At Secular Synagogue, Rabbi Handlarski finds that the biggest challenge so far is “getting noticed in the online space.” She acknowledges that it is very labour intensive, but she works with an advisory

council and hires people to “run some tech.” She adds, though, that “if you are working on a project that really fuels you, work time can feel like play time. I experience that.”

Rabbi Nachman at Seven Beggars cited two challenges, one being acceptance, and the other being finances. His income from another job allows him to subsidize Seven Beggars, which he considers to be a mitzvah and a labour of love. He has an informal advisory group made of 5 Rabbis from Reform, Conservative and Chassidic denominations to guide him, but still, he says, there are ‘critics and naysayers” who “still find fault.”

I asked whether these leaders see virtual synagogues becoming the dominant form of community and worship.

Rabbi Nachman emphatically hopes not: “Yes, there will always be a niche for the virtual shul to fill, but for the wider klal Yisrael, I think it would be devastating…I liken it to the Hellenistic period. It worries me a great deal…No, I do not think that this will ever become normalized.”

Rabbi Handlarski sees a day when there is no “dominant” form. “I think community and practice…will continue to become more diffuse and decentralized, with people having many communities/practices/spiritual homes that serve them.”

Having explored with me over these past blogs, two ways that Jewish communities have moved away being rooted to one physical place, what do you think? Is this where we are moving, or are our options simply expanding? Is our understanding of community changing? What can our community learn as we move forward?