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I hate Zoom Havdalah!

I hate Zoom Havdalah!

There, I said it. I also hate Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat, Zoom Seders, and Facebook Live events.

Of course, at the beginning of this nightmare, we desperately needed Zoom Havdalah. For those insanely dark April days, seeing each other even in a small virtual square was practically the only thing keeping us from falling into the COVID abyss.

As a rabbi attempting to shepherd my community through a pandemic, I admit that I, too, desperately latched onto my computer as if it had magical powers to keep everything afloat. Like the rest of the world, synagogues and day schools took Zoom by force, and adopted the platform to fill the massive communal holes when physical gatherings became impossible.

Retaining some resemblance of normalcy was critical. But let’s not fool ourselves: Nothing about this current era is normal. It’s okay to admit that nothing can fill the void that we all feel. It’s real and it’s extremely painful.

Certainly, no screen can fill that void. Allowing ourselves to let go of the world we knew is terribly agonizing, but attempting to reproduce it in a virtual space often discredits its true holiness and uniqueness.

So while Zoom Havdalah has its place, we need to begin weaning ourselves off it, even if we don’t begin congregating in person for weeks or even months. As the country prepares for a new stage in the ongoing battle with the coronavirus, the Jewish community should also reconsider how to move forward and Zoom can not be the only answer. TikTok videos and other forced virtual programs will only take us so far.

So now what?

For one, we can start reprioritizing the quality of our engagements over the quantity of attendance and occurrences. Sure, it feels reassuring to see 700 people on a Zoom gathering, but did it really accomplish anything? Are members of our community actually impacted from this experience?

“Is this necessary?” is the question we should ask ourselves before planning another virtual event. If the answer is not “absolutely,” I would seriously challenge you to reconsider offering it. Less is often more.

The sages also were firm believers in this line of thinking. As Rabbi Yosef Caro put it, “It is better to say a small amount of supplications with intention than to recite many without.”

And it’s not like there aren’t other – better – ways you could be spending that energy. Let’s save our “Zoom energy” for checking in with isolated community or family members or attending a Zoom Shiva. Instead of rabbis doing another class over Zoom, maybe now is the time to reconnect with congregants personally with a phone call.

We should also return to the basics. Now is not the time for reinventing the wheel. According to Jewish tradition, the world stands upon three things: the Torah, service, and the practice of acts of kindness. Believe it or not, we can accomplish all three without a computer.

In a famous Talmudic tale, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was in isolation for 12 years in a cave. What did he do in his quarantine? He simply studied Torah all day and night. From that experience emerged the Zohar, arguably the most creative Jewish text in existence. This story reminds us that something great can emerge from the ordinary and sometimes it can only occur in solitude.

What the outpouring of online programming has shown is the extraordinary desire we have to sustain and build our communities. This should not be overlooked. But maybe the yearning is where it should stay.

The Ishbitzer Rebbe taught that we should take joy in the times that God prevents us from performing a commandment because that is God’s will. Sometimes on Sukkot, it rains and we can’t sit in the Sukkah. Instead of sitting in the rain and trying to recreate an impossible reality, we should consider that being inside is actually where we need to be.

This feels like important wisdom as we attempt to navigate these uncertain times.

Rabbi Leener is the rabbi of Base Brooklyn and The Prospect Heights Shul.

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