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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.