The Jewish Chronicle
Keren David: Spirituality and Zoom Judaism
Far from watering down the ‘real thing’, online services have added a new dimension
MY FRIEND moved house last week, from leafy Surrey to a small harbour town on the Aberdeenshire coast. She’s settling into a new life, excited about the sea views, the fresh air and the glorious Highlands scenery. This kind of move — from the south east to somewhere much more rural — is happening all the time. The housing market in mid-Wales is booming, hordes of Londoners are descending on Devon and Cornwall. But I was still astonished when my friend announced her plans.
She is a committed and involved Jew, an enthusiastic member of her Liberal community in Reading, who is also very much part of the congregation at the Liberal Synagogue in St John’s Wood. She teaches cheder. As a convert to Judaism, committed to learning and doing, she has plunged into all kinds of Jewish life. How, I wondered, could she leave it all behind?
The answer was simple: she won’t be. Through the technology of Zoom and Facetime, she will carry on with her communal involvement. As for services, she had spent many years attending them online before she ever set foot in a synagogue.
Her passport to Judaism was the streamed offerings of progressive congregations around the world.
In fact, actual, live services were a challenge for her. There were many distractions. People talked. The spiritual connection was harder to find, not easier. Her experience of Judaism is unusual. But I understood immediately what she meant, even though my “normal” is a traditional Orthodox service, in which I sit behind a mechitza or in a gallery. Judaism by Zoom has been quite the revelation. I’ve started attending a women-only Hallel service, set up by Edgware United Synagogue, which will celebrate its first anniversary in May. It’s been an extraordinary success story, attracting more than 200 women to its monthly services, from all over the world. They log on from Panama, the Netherlands, Kenya and South Africa, from the US and Israel, and from all over the UK. The first time I tried it, I spotted a cousin from Vancouver, and her mother from Bournemouth. In these socially limited times, the feeling of connection was immediately uplifting. A Hallel service is always a lovely thing, and it is moving to hear Orthodox women — so often silenced — sing confidently and beautifully. All ages are represented, and you can chose whether to listen passively or sing along with your microphone on mute. Some women switch the camera off, some keep it on. But there is no escaping the fact that you are sitting in your home and not in a synagogue, in front of the same screen that you probably use for work. I expected that Zoom Judaism would be a watered-down version of the real thing. But the opposite was true. In my home, sitting alone at the kitchen table, I had what can only be called a spiritual experience (although
I am shy just using the word) . The words of the psalm — “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid” — gave me an emotional jolt, in a way that has never happened in shul.
These are fearful times, true, and our emotions are heightened. But rarely have I had the feeling that prayer was giving me just what I needed right there and then. Only once, in fact, at the stone setting for my stillborn son, which was less about the liturgy and more about a feeling of love in the prayer hall which was over and above the sum of the considerable love coming from the people physically present.
I have been to large synagogues and small ones, home-based minyans and egalitarian ones. I have gained something from almost all of them, and certainly don’t mean this as an attack on the usual way of doing things. I don’t really feel “religious”, balk at talking about belief and have settled on the word “traditional” to describe my Judaism, in want of something more inspiring. But in the peace and quiet of my home, listening to women like me singing songs of praise, I felt that invisible barriers — a mechitza in my soul — had been taken down. I was no longer a spectator.
When the Chief Rabbi wrote in these pages a few weeks ago about a spiritual renewal coming from this strange year, his words resonated with me. I hope that he will see the demand for women’s online services, and encourage and promote them. Yes, I am looking forward to meeting people again, and to all the social contact we have been missing. But for prayer, Zoom is a revelation.
As my friend in Aberdeenshire says:
“Why are we surprised that we feel more Jewish when we pray at home? Home is where our Jewishness lives.”