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How I finally came to appreciate virtual Shabbat

Recently, I did two things I thought I would not ever be doing. I actually took time to read an article about why synagogues need to consider “virtual gatherings” during the current COVID-19 crisis, but at the same time the article emphasized that Jews should be sure to understand “what it means to come together physically” — granting the long history of and traditions surrounding communal worship, I think we generally recognize and would not argue about the value of being together, but for now, we are hardly in an ordinary situation.

The other thing I did that I have never done before was to participate in the experience of an Erev Shabbat service livestreamed by our temple, sans congregation; only our rabbis and our cantorial soloist were present as the difficult decision had been made to close our building to the public in the interest of the safety of all concerned. I was skeptical, but it was the occasion of the yahrzeit for my wife’s brother, and frankly this was the only option we had to respect her wish to recite the mourner’s Kaddish.

So many questions: is saying Kaddish outside the physical presence of a minyan meaningful? Opinions vary, depending on who renders such opinions; after due consideration we felt, granting the practical aspect in this case, that there was no other choice.

What about the service itself? How involved can one be from their couch?

At first, while it was comforting to see familiar faces on the bema, and hear the music and melodies of Shabbat, it was difficult to engage; however, the very familiarity of the service as it continued, drew us in more and more, so while we timidly “joined in” to sing Lecha Dodi by the Shema we found our voice! Since then, we have continued to take part in services online.

While it is definitely different from attending services in person, overall it is a religious experience of much value to us. This is especially so under the present conditions, and most importantly, due in great part to the manner in which the services are conducted, we have a sense we are somehow together with others, like-minded Jews welcoming Shabbat into our homes and our hearts.

As a poet, I have thought about why this is so, and offer this poem as a possibility for the unknown future we face, for the time being at least, to suggest we can find each other even in a virtual space:

What Is Real About A Virtual Sabbath Service?

Our sages tell us when we pray together
in one place there the divine presence dwells,
but is there a sanctuary in cyberspace
in this pandemic time?
When we ask where are you God,
when we ask do you hear us God
wherever we are, does it matter where we are?
If we cannot safely be together
we can find each other in our
sense of common bond, reciting the
words of our prayers—together,
lifting our voices
in song—together, expressing
our needs, our fears,
our hopes—together
wherever we are,

Am Yisrael Chai.

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Howard Richard Debs is a recipient of the 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards. His book Gallery: A Collection of Pictures and Words (Scarlet Leaf Publishing) is a 2017 Best Book Awards and 2018 Book Excellence Awards recipient. He is co-editor of New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust forthcoming in later 2020 from Vallentine Mitchell of London. He is listed in the Poets & Writers Directory.

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