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Holding a Digital Shivah Minyan in the Age of COVID-19

For as long as I can remember, I have begun every shivah minyan by saying something like this: “The measure of a community’s strength is not how they gather for celebrations, but how they show up for each other in moments of sadness and pain. It’s easy to show up for something fun and joyous, but when we make our presence felt at the low points, we demonstrate our connection and commitment to each other.” So, what do I say now when it is impossible to be physically present even for our closest relatives and friends? To be honest, I don’t change the script much other to acknowledge that if we could, we would be there. It is essential that we acknowledge the unique nature of the moment we are in. No matter where you live in this world, no matter how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit your community, we are all suffering. We are all separated from those we love, from our regular routines and from the Jewish rituals that structure so much of our professional lives. At the same time, we are grateful for the ability to innovate our rituals to meet the moment we are in, just as Jewish leaders have done for thousands of years.

Zoom and other video conferencing platforms have been a God-send at this moment of social distancing. But they are also cause for stress, confusion, and mishap if not used adeptly. Here are some insights I have gathered from leading shivah minyans on Zoom.

  1. Create a Zoom meeting with a simple password. New security features on Zoom create an automatic numeric password. Change the password to make it easy to remember. When sending the link, either highlight and bold the link and password or edit the invitation to include only the link, the password, and relevant phone numbers. 
  2. Make sure the immediate circle of mourners is comfortable with the platform. Determine whether they will be using a computer, a tablet or a phone. Insist that they download the software or the app to their device beforehand. Offer to help them do a test run or suggest that they connect with someone in their circle who has experience with the program. Avoid comments such as, “It is really easy to use,” or “You should have no problem at all.” I have found that less tech savvy people, particularly seniors, find Zoom to be confusing. There are many prompts that don’t feel intuitive for everyone. 
  3. Advanced Zoom features to consider: The waiting room function allows you to get on early with the immediate family and make sure they are set. It can also protect against Zoombombers. Mute folks upon entry as well. It’s best to maintain control of people’s mute function in general. Offer to record the service. It is easy to upload and send as a link to the family afterwards. On the other hand, I would encourage people to leave their cameras on, but remind them that they can be seen. It is very comforting to see all those faces together. 
  4. How do we lead a technically successful shivah minyan on Zoom? There are several options. The CCAR has graciously given us free access to the flipbook version of Mishkan T’filah for a House of Mourning . If you share the flipbook link, prepare ahead of time to give the digital page number (which is different from the print book pagination). If you plan on using the screen share option, displaying pages as needed, it is ideal to have a second person in charge of that function. Plan ahead to cut and paste the link to the flipbook into the chat feature of Zoom: 
  5. How do we lead a spiritually and emotionally successful minyan service on Zoom? This is the easiest part! People are grateful to be together. People are moved to see each other’s faces. People are incredibly forgiving of any technical awkwardness. In leading the service, I start by explaining all the technicalities listed above. I let people know that they will be muted for most of the service. And then we begin. Keep the service as concise as possible. All Hebrew should be read or sung so people can keep up. All English readings should be communal. (All this is done with the participants muted.) However, when it comes to Kaddish, I have followed the advice of others and unmuted all the participants. It is awkward and clumsy with the time delay. But it is also incredibly moving to hear everyone’s voices. It is a great source of comfort to the mourners as well. 
  6. One final note. The most important part of an in-person shivah minyan is the gathering before and after. The sharing of stories and memories is so cathartic. There is an option on Zoom to make someone else  co-host of the meeting. Plan this ahead of time with a member of the immediate family. This will enable the group to stay on after the service and allow you to leave the meeting. People can linger and share stories about the person they have lost for as long as they like. Just remember to finish recording before you get off or it won’t save.

We rabbis are perfectionists by nature, yet this is definitely not a time when we can expect to be perfect. But by leaning into our compassion, our patience, and our creativity we are still able to offer comfort and connection to our people in their time of sorrow and loss.

Rabbi Mara S. Nathan is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas. 

Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

High Holy Days Leader Experience: Being the Suffering Servant, Isaiah 53

No one thinks about the High Holy Days more than rabbis and cantors. That’s not to say that Jews as a community don’t look forward to the holidays. People enjoy being with family, eating special foods and seeing people at Syangogue. Many people also find the High Holy Days to be a spiritually fulfilling and uplifting experience. But for the most part it is the rabbis, cantors and other High Holy Day service leaders who spend months planning and preparing for the 10 Days of Awe. Everyone else just shows up.

Several years ago, I ran into Dr. Larry Hoffman just as my pre Rosh Hashanah stress load had reached its peak. He casually asked how I was doing. I recall griping about how overwhelming and even painful High Holy Day preparations always seemed to be, that there was incredible pressure to provide the congregation with a spiritually fulfilling Holy Day season and that I had little if any time for my own spiritual preparations or practice. “You know the suffering servant in Isaiah 53,” he asked? “That’s us.”

The Jewish people may be God’s servants in the Biblical text, but when it comes to the High Holy Days we serve God AND the Jewish people. Finding a way to create worship experiences that are comfortable yet creative, inspiring but also challenging can be a tricky proposition. Last year my congregation worshiped using the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mornings in our alternative service and Yom Kippur afternoon through Neilah in the main sanctuary.  And though I had wored with several different pilot versions in the past, as a clergy team we spent hours picking music and readings, working to find a balance between the old and new, guessing at timing and hoping that the congregation would take it all in stride, which for the most part they did.

That being said, I wish I hadn’t had to wait until this summer to read Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh. Don’t be fooled, I am sure I will suffer plenty in the next few months as I revise service outlines, write iyunnim and sermons and work out all the details of volunteer participation (with my cantor taking on much of that load as well). Yet this book provides the spiritual uplift I had been missing to put it all in perspective. Not only does Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh give us the insiders view on what went into developing and crafting the two beautiful volumes of Mishkan HaNefesh, but it allows the reader to think about the greater purpose and meaning of the High Holy Days and prayer in general. In reading this volume I was also inspired to appreciate what our machzor can do. As Rabbi Edwin Goldberg so aptly reflects, “…we post moderns need a corrective,  a ‘reset’ that centers us in a context of what matters most. Life, many of us deem, is a problem. Jewish text and tradition- presented as a meaningful, relevant High Holy Day experience- can be a captivating and vital solution.” (p.1)

The explanations of how different editorial decisions have been made and the textual references at the back of the book are excellent tools. However, for me, it is the eight essays in Part Two of the book that I cherished not only for the superior writing but for the chance to engage in higher level thinking they provided me. Each essay leaves the reader with big ideas to ponder and lifts up the preparations for the holy days from a task of servitude to one of holy service.

In his essay, Translating Faith, Rabbi Shelly Marder reminds us of how the words we pray, whether they are in Hebrew or English are a human attempt to articulate the inarticulateable: what we really believe. “…[F]aith, after all, is a language that challenges us to describe  the ineffable and comprehend the unknowable. (p.85)

If all written or spoken prayers are each an attempt to “translate the non-verbal into speech,” (p.86) then the English versions of our ancient Hebrew prayers are no more than “a living bridge…[that] gives us access to the world that generated the original text- as well as a glimpse of the experience of those who first used it.” (p.87) Understanding how translation is an art in and of itself can inspire us to remember that the prayers we now say or sing so specifically and devotedly were once nothing more than a prayerful person’s best attempt at articulating their own feelings of faith. The new writings and poetry that have been added to the machzor are similar artistic reflections of faith, no less holy for their less than ancient origins. As undertake my own writing for the season I will keep this in mind.

Rabbi Leon Morris brilliantly unpacks the tension between traditional and Reform liturgy in his essay Restoring and Reclaiming tradition: Creative Retrievals and Mishkan HaNefesh. By counseling us to engage in a ‘hermeneutic of embrace’, Morris challenges us to see our fellow Reform Jews as intelligent, thoughtful and spiritually searching people. Rather than ‘decide for our community’, as rabbis and liturgists of ages past have done, this new machzor presents the opportunity for everyone to engage in Avodah on their own terms. As he writes, “the understanding of Avodah as work might be apt…when we consider the interpretive labor required of us when trying our best to bridge the gap between the inherited words of the classic siddur and our contemporary lives. It is often hard work to make meaning from these words. Simultaneously such work is a privilege, a blessing and an opportunity for connection and continuity.” (p.99)

Cantor Evan Kent reminds cantors and rabbis alike of the powerful effect music can have on the energy of a worship service, “creating living liturgical memories [that] involve the body and mind.” (p.118) His essay: Collective Effervescence: High Holy Day Music and Liturgical Memory, challenges us to think beyond the grand liturgical pieces we have all come to expect. By incorporating highly repetitive and communal singing, he suggests, we can create threads that  weave a room of strangers into a congregation while taking advantage of the liturgical themes of the season that also weave in and out of the High Holy day liturgies. As he writes: “Highly repetitive music actually adds to the intensity of the ritual as it enables maximum participation” (p.121).

This new volume is truly a treasure. Keep it as a resource, but return to it again and again for inspiration and guidance. It reminded me of how holy a task it is to prepare for and lead our communities through the Days of Awe. It can remind us all that the machzor is a tool that enables us to ask: “How do we help ourselves return to our sacred path, in a world that continually seduces us away from the work that we must do.” (p.63)

Rabbi Mara Nathan serves Temple Beth-El in San Antonio Texas. She is also currently serving on the Board of the CCAR as Dues Chair.

Convention Israel

Strangers in a Strange Land – Asylum Seekers and Migrant Workers in Israel

So often when we travel to Israel we expect to see ‘the best’ of what the country has to offer. We see beautiful landscapes and architecture and eat at our favorite falafel stand. We stock up on kippot and other Judaica and we feel good about contributing to the Israeli economy. We feel good about being ‘b’aretz‘ in the land.

One of the special aspects of a CCAR Convention in Israel is the opportunity to do all of that but also go much deeper into the psyche of this modern state. My love for Israel is consistent and true and I am always wanting to understand the nuances of her character. Like a beloved friend, I am not afraid to unearth flaws. Rather, I desire to know this country for all that it is: a miraculous Nation State trying to figure out how ‘to be’ in this world.

While the world is focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, not a tremendous amount of attention is being paid to the almost 65,000 African Asylum seekers who have crossed into Israel in the last 10 years. They are mostly from Sudan and Eritrea and are part of a population of about 230,000 foreign laborers in Israel who mostly work in agriculture, home care and construction.

The laws concerning foreign laborers and asylum seekers have been uneven and inconsistent. International migrant workers, or Foreign workers as they were called, were originally recruited during the intifada of the 1990s when Palestinians were not permitted to work in Israel. But importing workers from other countries is different than having workers who go home at night and the strain on the societal infrastructure became noticeable as numbers of workers increased. While there have been deportations over the years and an ebb and flow in numbers, at this time, Israel faces a humanitarian and legal crisis as it tries to figure it how to deal with the fact that there are people in the world who seek to live and work in this country who are not Jewish and who are not Palestinian.

While the Israeli government does not now deport foreign workers, it also does not grant them refugee status. Instead they receive Group Temporary Protection. This does not include work visas. The laws and systems are confusing and many people live in abject poverty, overwhelmed by the bureaucratic system that envelopes them.

Yet over the course of our program on Migrant Workers and Asylum seekers today, we got a sense of what is being done on the ground to help them. Most inspiring was a visit to Bialik Rogozin School where Eli Nechama and his staff transform the lives of their at risk students. Children from fifty one countries and many faiths are educated, and inculcated with a sense of excellence, pride and hope. An academy award winning film about this school, “No Strangers Here” tells their story. As a group of young students sang to us of peace in sweet clear voices, we could not help but be moved by the amazing impact their school has had on them and their future. Another hopeful encounter was with the staff of Hotline for Refugee and Migrants. Through client services, detention monitoring and legal action the Hotline works to create a just asylum system and a rights based approach to migration law and policy. A staff worker showed us around South Tel Aviv and shared some of the challenges of the migrant populations.

When it was all over, the question was whether we were angry or hopeful or maybe something else. It’s hard to think of the State of Israel treating innocent people who have left dangerous homelands in search of safety and freedom in ways that are harsh and in many ways in humane. After all have we as a people not also been in such a situation too many times in our history? I acknowledge this challenge, and yet, as is often the case on these programs, I walk away sobered but also inspired by the individuals, NGOS and communities that are creatively and passionately working on the ground to solve these societal problems. Teachers and volunteers dedicate enormous energy to help migrant kids, some of whom have never received any formal schooling prepare for bagrut. Staff and volunteers at places like Hotline passionately intervene with the State to protect the well being and future of total strangers. People who cook food or donate clothing and supplies, who teach Hebrew and English and who befriend those who are ‘strangers in a strange land’ feel a sense of obligation as Jews and as human beings.

Israelis never cease to be inspiring to me, and so too despite her flaws is Israel as well.

Rabbi Mara S. Nathan serves Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, Texas. Mara serves on the CCAR Board of Trustees.