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The power of spiritual community in a chaotic world

March 15th is a day etched in my memory. That Sunday evening, the minyan at my Conservative shul went virtual. Earlier in the day, our Massachusetts governor, Charlie Baker, had limited gatherings to 25 people. Later that month, full-fledged social distancing and sheltering at home would go into effect.

That evening, I also decided to attend minyan. I am not a regular minyan-goer, other than for the yahrzeits of my parents and in-laws or when a minyan captain requests my presence to ensure the required quorum of ten.

For years, though, I have appreciated the strong sense of community that our minyan has fostered. It provided me an anchor while reciting Kaddish for my father two decades ago. I will never forget how warmly the minyan greeted me when, as a new mourner, I timidly entered the small chapel with a sea of unfamiliar faces. And I am still grateful for the first time I was asked to be a minyan prayer leader — on a day, no less when I was the only woman present — and I still remember how proud I felt, having never led davening before.

I am not sure why I decided to attend minyan on March 15th. On the one hand, I was curious how a Zoom minyan would work at my own shul, having recently attended Purim services over livestream and Facebook Live at other congregations in the U.S. and Israel. On the other hand, although I may not have admitted so at the time, I was beginning to crave the social connections missing since limited social distancing had already begun.

Six weeks later, I am still attending daily minyan, nearly every evening. I am becoming a regular.

When I see these faces on my computer screen, I realize that what I crave most is order and simplicity.

Paula Jacobs

Shortly after 7:20 p.m. I turn on my computer and log into Zoom video conferencing, using the secure video link. While once I came to minyan without a second to spare and left immediately afterward, these days I arrive a few minutes early and stay a bit later, chatting across my computer screen.

I see the familiar faces on the computer screen — generally upwards of 20 congregants participating in our virtual minyan, including some in their Kaddish year. Some are long-time family friends with whom I have celebrated holidays and lifecycle events. There are my minyan friends whom I met during our mutual Kaddish year and/or comforted during their times of loss. I also see synagogue acquaintances with whom I have barely exchanged a word, as well as former congregants who have moved out of town or retired to Florida.

Sadly, there are also recent mourners who cannot engage in traditional Jewish mourning customs or attend their loved one’s out-of-town funeral because of coronavirus restrictions. This week, as a community, we mourned together the loss of a beloved congregant whose 100th birthday we celebrated last year and who died just a month short of her 101st birthday. Together we mourn these losses and do our best to offer virtual hugs and the traditional words of comfort, “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

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Indeed, when I see these faces on my computer screen, I realize that what I crave most is order and simplicity. Just as important for me as the words and rhythm of the fixed Hebrew prayers of the evening service are seeing these familiar faces and connecting with them, albeit over a computer screen. In these dark times, the minyan provides me the stability, consistency, and even a modicum of the normalcy that seems elusive and which, like millions of people across the world, I so desperately crave.

In the face of coronavirus, I reflect on the little, mundane things that once constituted the trivial aspects of my daily life in a pre-COVID-19 world: the many simple habits which I took for granted and never thought about twice. Like shopping for groceries at supermarkets with stocked shelves, dining with friends, visiting family, or participating in Shabbat services and schmoozing during Kiddush. A myriad of simple acts — all performed effortlessly, with nary a second thought and without donning face masks or protective gloves.

But during this brief 30-minute interlude, I can pretend that nothing has changed. Momentarily, the world seems to have returned to normal as we pause to chat about our daily lives, our families, and our favorite past-times, from the latest Netflix movies to the Red Sox (despite the sad jolt of reality about the missing baseball season).

Granted, some may question the validity of a virtual minyan, either whether it is halachically permissible or whether it is possible to form genuine personal connections over a computer screen. But It is here in the virtual minyan, during this sha’at hadehak, time of distress, that I find solace, comfort, and community.

I am reminded of the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Our share in holiness we acquire by living in the Jewish community.” So at a time when the world appears bleak, the future seems uncertain, and social distancing continues, my own Jewish community has never felt closer.

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.

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