I’ve been leading virtual davening for years. Here are some tips for how to make it meaningful.
We have entered a new phase of Jewish history in which cyberspace has become the place to nurture our spiritual lives. Previous generations lived through the Black Plague, cholera and more. Ours is the first to face a pandemic with technology that allows us to create vital, connected, online communities.
This is a moment of radical change that will undoubtedly reshape Judaism. It is both scary and exciting.
My congregation, Beth El Synagogue, has been experimenting in this vein for six years, with live-streamed services. We do it for the elderly who are no longer able to get to shul on Shabbat, for the grandfather not well enough to travel to his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah, for the person living in rural Minnesota far from any synagogue, for the young adult exploring Judaism but not yet ready to walk into a synagogue, for my father in a hospital room receiving chemotherapy and proudly showing the nurses “my son, the rabbi.”
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For these and other “exceptional” circumstances, live streaming has been a wonderful substitute for actually being present. Now being unable to gather is the rule not the exception. If we cannot sit together, stand together, sing together, how can we create the transcendent moments that have never been more important?
Here are a few suggestions based on our years of experience to make the most of online davening:
Participate. The temptation when streaming services is to be an onlooker. We regularly come to screens as passive consumers. But prayer is meant to be participatory. Follow along in your siddur and chumash (there are plenty of online versions to access). Sing along even if you’re on mute. Stand when it’s time to stand. Join in readings. It may feel awkward at first. Give yourself permission to feel awkward.
“Do not go astray after your eyes.” That’s in the Sh’ma, our central prayer. When in front of a screen, even for services, it is tempting to check email, social media or the news. But we need time each day to turn off the world. We need Shabbat, one day a week to put aside the temporal and attach ourselves to that which is eternal.
To enter such a prayerful space requires not just turning off notices that pop up on our screens, but setting an intention: “I am dedicating this time to the holiness of prayer: to quieting my mind, to focusing my thoughts, to voicing my fears and hopes, to receiving the wisdom of my tradition, and to listening for God’s ‘still small voice.’”
Dress the part. We are commanded to “remember Shabbat and keep it holy.” Get in the mood by wearing Shabbat clothes — or at least not pajamas! If it is your custom, put on a tallit and kippah. What we wear shapes how we feel.
Establish a prayer space. The Talmud speaks of the importance of establishing a “makom kavua,” or a fixed place, to daven. Just as you may have a regular seat in shul, choose a place that is comfortable, a place that allows you to concentrate, to sing aloud, to meditate. You might choose a place in nature to give you some extra inspiration, or the deck in your backyard, a quiet room, a favorite chair.
Hiddur Mitzvah. That’s the Jewish concept of enhancing our rituals — we are taught to pray in a space that is not only clean but beautiful. You probably can’t replicate the grandeur of a synagogue sanctuary, with its stained glass or vaulted ceilings, but consider making a drawing or hanging a Judaica print on the eastern wall to indicate the direction of Jerusalem, where we face for our silent prayer.
Shinui. According to Jewish law, in special circumstances, people may perform acts normally forbidden on Shabbat by doing so with a “change.” For example, those who don’t write on Shabbat are allowed to write with their non-dominant hand. The principle of shinui goes beyond Shabbat. We should expect changes, and proactively make them, to develop a new prayer routine. Difficult as it is, we might find that this unique time deepens our experience of prayer and appreciation of community.
This is of course just a start. Please share your suggestions for making online services meaningful in the comments — and with your clergy. We, too, are learning how to navigate this new world.
As humans, we crave connection. As Jews, gathering for services is a defining feature of our tradition. We pray in the plural – in the language of the siddur, in the call and response of Jewish prayer and in the very requirement to establish a minyan.
Let us make the most of this time investing in our individual prayer lives with meaning and intention. Because now, more than ever, we need prayer and community, and we need each other to calm our nerves, open our hearts, lift our spirit and touch our souls.
It can happen. For God is not located in a synagogue, but wherever and whenever we let God in.