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Shabbat matters even more now

I bow at the knees, looking to the east, in my kitchen. First left, then right, then center.

And as each week goes by and the likelihood of resuming “business as usual” recedes, I’m seeing a future of iPad-dependent Friday evenings.

Abigail Pogrebin

As Kabbalat Shabbat services proceed on my iPad, streaming my synagogue on Facebook Live, I bow during “L’Cha Dodi,” as I have every Friday night for the past eight weeks that I’ve sheltered in place with my family. It no longer feels odd to tilt to the floor in my kitchen.

Those of us who belong to Central Synagogue in Manhattan were perversely “lucky,” when the restrictions hit; we already had a well-oiled livestream option for Shabbat Services. Since Central’s livestream began years ago, it’s been increasingly important to our clergy to offer Jewish ritual and connection — without cost — to those who were homebound, out of town, or without a temple at all. Hundreds have live-streamed weekly, and hundreds of thousands tune in internationally on the High Holy Days.

But for the moment, we’re all in the same virtual boat, with no possibility of in-person worship. And as each week goes by and the likelihood of resuming “business as usual” recedes, I’m seeing a future of iPad-dependent Friday evenings.

But as much as I rail at the new normal, I’ve found new spirituality in it. Shabbat matters even more now. The chance to connect with fellow congregants is medicinal. The gratitude of surviving another week feels acute. Our clergy offer more pastoral reassurance than I knew I needed. Even as they preside in their respective homes — with backdrops ranging from a ficus plant to family photos — they feel nearer.

I can’t say that the strange snapshots of my clergy’s domesticity can match the majesty of Central’s grand sanctuary; that’s impossible. But this service is a different species now. More personal. Rougher around the edges, in the best sense: The enterprise feels somewhat improvised, and that’s as it should be.

We’re all improvising now. Precision and polish feel not just obsolete, but tone-deaf.

In a time when days blur and I can feel adrift, Friday’s service throws me a rope. It’s sure. Joyful. I manage to bake a decent challah (despite being an insecure cook) after my 20-year-old daughter shows me how it’s done.

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My 23-year-old son is in the next room when services begin, but I hear him belt out the songs he grew up with. I’m uplifted by the tumble of exuberant “Shabbat Shalom” greetings on the Facebook chat in real-time — strangers and friends writing from Texas to Toronto; this community is in sync when nothing else is. This ritual offers its own reliable reunion.

My rabbis sermonize about the ways that Torah anticipated plagues and self-quarantine. The cantors’ voices somehow cut to the gut; I am embarrassed when I find myself crying.

I don’t want this to be the future, but as we await the next directives, I’m grateful for this far-flung family and a place to pray.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew” and is the immediate past president of Central Synagogue in Manhattan.

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