Shuls, rabbis, and corona congregations

  • Parshas Ki Tetze - Rabbi Yossi Goldman
I was chatting to my son, Bentzy, who is in the United States, and he shared something fascinating with me. Did you know that since the coronavirus struck, there’s been a surge in downloads of apps that focus on meditation? Many millions of Americans are downloading apps called Calm, Headspace, Meditopia, and Relax: Master your destiny. How’s that for irony? Meditation is all about getting away from the big, noisy, mechanical, robotic world. And how do we achieve it? With a digital app!
by RABBI YOSSY GOLDMAN | Sep 10, 2020

Then there’s the recent Pew Research Survey confirming that more than 50% of Americans confessed to having prayed for an end to the coronavirus. Clearly, of those 50%, many aren’t regular worshippers.

We, too, have been praying. To be able to pray – in shul! Thank G-d, we are returning to our shuls now, slowly and gradually, and hopefully will return to normal shul services sooner rather than later. But we’re still not there yet.

Yes, rabbis and shuls have had to reinvent themselves. In business, they are calling it “pivoting” – to be able to turn around and innovate with creativity and originality. I know of a gin manufacturer now producing alcohol-based hand sanitisers, a jewellery merchant who is now selling digital thermometers, a rebbetzin who started selling her home-baked challah and other delicacies, and this newspaper has pivoted perfectly with its immensely popular webinar programmes.

Shuls, too, have had to pivot and innovate. Zoom “minyanim”, lectures, and shiurim were only the beginning. We’ve started new classes, some daily, some weekly. We’re doing new short, two-minute Torah messages over WhatsApp every morning. I’m reaching out to members who are observing yahrtzeits personally, and wishing them long life, something I never did before on any regular basis.

My colleague, Rabbi Yehuda Stern, is the driving force behind our shul’s Zoom programmes. Our Friday pre-Kabbalat Shabbat services with guest rabbis, chazonim, and singers, and our Monday evening Zoom events have been a huge success, attracting participants from way beyond our own shul membership, indeed, beyond Johannesburg, even beyond South Africa. We’ve aimed high, and have been able to host leading international personalities and talents from a wide circle.

Among our speakers, we’ve had the son of a Nazi who served in the Israel Defense Forces. And a Jewish daughter of Hamas who had to escape her house arrest while married to an Arab. That programme attracted many thousands of viewers from across the globe!

There’s a South African expat who today lives in Honolulu which is 12 hours behind us. He wakes up at 04:00 every Friday to watch our Kabbalat Shabbat service. And I’m deeply flattered to have South Africans living in the holy city of Tzfat who tune in to attend my weekly Ethics from Sinai shiur.

From within our own congregation, so many who never came to shul during the week are now attending our daily Zoom minyanim faithfully. People who never previously attended shiurim are now learning Torah regularly, some for the first time in their lives. And loving it!

So even now that we are back at shul, we are keeping up our Zoom minyanim for those still unable to come to shul. And I imagine that adult education will likely continue over Zoom for some time still. Maybe until we have a vaccine, who knows? It’s a new world. A changed world.

That’s why I worry about older people who don’t have easy access to digital connectivity. For more than five months, they’ve been completely out of the picture. I appeal to their children and grandchildren to find ways to get them connected, even now.

It’s been a strange experience working from home, but having to “work smarter” than ever before. On the one hand, rabbis miss giving a live sermon to a live audience. And getting a nice yasher koach (congratulations) afterwards is nice too.

On the other hand, we’ve received a constant flow of emails and WhatsApp messages filled with appreciative comments and warm words of gratitude for all that we’ve been doing to keep our people busy, sane, and “connected”. And that has been deeply gratifying.

Judaism has always faced the challenge of adapting to new circumstances and environments. Embracing new technology while clinging steadfastly to our ancient values and principles is nothing new for rabbis. But I must say, the coronavirus has been more daunting than anything I can remember. Please G-d, we will all emerge intact and even stronger physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

  • Rabbi Goldman is the rabbi at Sydenham Shul and president of the SA Rabbinical Association.

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