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Fewer barriers, more intimacy

It was during the first weekend of the lockdown that I attended my first online bat mitzvah. I happened to be at my computer during Shacharit services when Facebook notified me that my congregation was going live. As I watched, notifications popped up as my friends and contacts tuned in. As people recognized each others’ names popping up, they greeted each other warmly – wishing them good health and sending virtual hugs.

COVID-19 is giving us intimate glimpses inside our communal leaders’ homes and of aspects of ritual we don’t usually see.

Tema Smith

Soon, it was time for the Torah service. The screen shifted to the living room of a young woman’s house, where she was flanked by her parents. In the sanctuary, the Rabbi unrolled the Torah, allowing the congregation a close-up glimpse of the hand-written scroll that those in the pews rarely see. As the young woman began to chant, the comment feed filled with words of encouragement from congregants and her family and friends, near and far.

Another weekend, I tuned into a Friday night service. On one side of the screen, the cantor sat in his living room. On the other side, one of the rabbis was in his kitchen with his wife and four young children, preparing to light the Shabbat candles. As the candles were being lit, one of the kids started to cry, yelling “No! Daddy!” as her father reached down to help her with the long match. Over Facebook live, we shared in this family moment with one of the spiritual leaders of our congregation.

COVID-19 is giving us intimate glimpses inside our communal leaders’ homes and of aspects of ritual we don’t usually see. We are finding new ways to tell each other we are here and we care. We are reaching broader audiences with all sorts of Jewish learning.

COVID-19 is moving the Jewish community online.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve attended more services at my own congregation. But I’ve also tuned into services and learnings from organizations across North America: an interfaith Ramadan conversation from Philadelphia, Yom HaShoah remembrances from different cities, lectures, concerts, webinars…

The offerings are endless, so much so that a website dedicated to cataloging and calendaring the numerous offerings, JewishLive, has sprung up as a one-stop destination for connecting to programs across the communal landscape.

At 18Doors, the organization where I am Director of Professional Development, we have moved online also. Whether webinars for Jewish professionals and lay leaders, a Shabbat dinner meet-up for interfaith couples who have had to change their wedding plans because of COVID-19, a session on pregnancy and childbirth during these uncertain times, and beyond, our team is finding new ways to connect to the people we usually work with in person, either in our local communities, as consultants, or at conferences.

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And people are responding to this new, low-barrier community. In fact, we are connecting to people we wouldn’t normally encounter – people on the margins of Jewish life who are plugging in as they are comfortable, from their homes. Engaged members of Jewish communities are connecting not just to their own communities, but exploring others as well.

After COVID-19, even as we are back in buildings and venues, the digital spaces we have constructed as a survival mechanism during this time of physical distancing will endure. And with them, our organizations will be attracting new and different audiences – both locally and at a distance, as community members continue to explore the full landscape of Jewish life, accessing programs and services near and far.

We don’t know what the world will look like on the other side of the pandemic, but one thing is certain: After COVID-19, online Jewish spaces will remain an integral part of our communal landscape. And it will be up to us how we choose to cultivate them.

Tema Smith is a contributing columnist for the Forward and the Director of Professional Development at 18Doors.

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