Thursday, September 17, 2020

Atoning Over Zoom: How Video Technology Will Connect Jews During High Holy Days

At the beginning of 2020, most people hadn’t even heard of Zoom, the video-conferencing application. By early April of this year, we were all using Zoom for work meetings, the kids’ school, funerals, shivas, Passover seders, Shabbat services, and to connect with family members during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a rabbi, I have officiated over a dozen bar and bat mitzvah services and two baby naming ceremonies using Zoom over the past six months.

Zoom has become the new normal for us as we learn how to best connect with each other virtually during the pandemic. Thankfully, 21st-century startups like Zoom have made tech advances making virtual meetings even easier than in prior years. Over the summer, knowing the High Holy Day season might arrive before synagogues were able to re-open, rabbis and cantors around the world began preparing for what would become the first all-virtual Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur season.

Some congregations will offer hybrid services with some participants onsite, while most congregations will be fully virtual. There will also be synagogues that have pre-recorded the holiday services and some that will offer a live-stream with some pre-recorded segments. In order for Zoom to work well with the needs of clergy for the High Holy Days, my colleague Rabbi Joshua Heller has been in direct communication with the video conferencing company to urge them to make some changes to accommodate congregations. I spoke with Rabbi Heller, who authored the teshuvah (rabbinic position paper) allowing synagogues in the Conservative Movement to offer virtual services on the Sabbath, about the changes Zoom has made as well as what he sees as the future of virtual prayer services. Rabbi Heller has a degree in computer science from Harvard, was the first full-time director of the distance learning program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has a local Metro Detroit connection being married to Wendy Betel Heller, a native of West Bloomfield.

Rabbi Joshua Heller

What is your background with virtual prayer services?

Rabbi Heller: I started thinking about the issue of streaming even before COVID hit because in my own congregation there were people who were facing different kinds of health challenges and who couldn't come to synagogue and they would be watching a stream of one of the other congregations that was streaming. I could see this was the direction the world was going in; I just didn't realize how quickly it would get there. There was a Committee on Jewish Law and Standards conversation in November when a very early draft of the paper [on virtual prayer on Shabbat] came up and committee members were very skeptical about whether we should be encouraging people to use technology on Shabbat. And then once people realized what COVID was going to be, the conversation really became fast-tracked in a lot of ways and our expectations of streaming also changed. Until March, the assumption was that most people were going to be in the synagogue and it would be people out there in the world who would be watching the stream, but they would be in the minority. And we now obviously live in a world where there are only a few people in the synagogue and you really need the interactivity.

How did the COVID pandemic expedite the permissibility of forming a minyan (prayer quorum of ten minimum)?

RJH: The decision to permit a minyan virtually was actually quite controversial. The first time that I proposed it, the committee was simply not interested. With the closing of synagogues around the world because of COVID, the committee backtracked just a few days later.

Let's talk about the High Holy Days. How have you advocated for synagogues when it comes to the actual Zoom updates based on the needs of congregations for Shabbat and holidays?

RJH: I started thinking about the High Holy Days pretty early on. Although, I think I assumed that we would be in a better place by now and clearly that has not happened. I think when the pandemic started a lot of synagogues thought they could wait it out, but over the summer they realized that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would have to be virtual this year. In the last couple of months, congregations and rabbis realized they could get away without a live Shabbat service, but a virtual High Holy Day offering would be necessary [because of the mass of people who attend during those two holidays]. I spent a decent amount of effort trying to make Zoom more Shabbat and Jewish holiday-friendly. So, one thing that happened in the spring was Zoom removed the ability for the host to unmute people and it wasn't just because I asked but they recently added that feature back in. A lot of people wanted that functionality back. One of the challenges of Zoom is that a meeting normally could only last for 24 hours, which is a problem if you're trying to have 25 hours of Yom Kippur or two days of Rosh Hashanah without touching your computer. At the end of August, I was delighted that we were successful in getting permission to have Zoom meetings/webinars extended to up to 72 hours for communities where Shabbat and Jewish holiday observance requires that feature. Synagogues that requested it (approximately 300 total) were able to have that feature turned on and then it will be disabled again shortly after the Simchat Torah holiday.

Do you think a live prayer service that is streamed on Zoom is more beneficial than a pre-recorded service?

RJH: For me, prayer is about community because I think having a minyan really does require having people being able to see and interact with each other. It is not like a TV show that you binge-watch; it's actually a conversation that you're participating in and I think this year, people are physically further away then they might have been, but frankly, they'll have a better view because there's no bad seat in the house this year – everyone gets to be up close and personal. We really want to preserve that feeling of community. There are synagogues that are going to put on a great show with great production value and TV crews.

Can you talk about the process of how you got in touch with the powers that be at Zoom and did you consider an alternative video conferencing technology or even paying for a customized app that would work the way synagogues needed?

I worked my way up the corporate ladder at Zoom until I found the right person who had the ability to make some of these changes. We looked at other options but Zoom has the price and features that we needed. Zoom has also put a lot of effort into security even though they’ve taken a lot of criticism in that regard. We did talk to another vendor about creating a White Label synagogue meeting product, but we realized we didn’t have enough time before the High Holy Days and the cost was very high. Plus, it wouldn’t have been as good as Zoom so I went back to Zoom and found someone who could help us out.

What happens after COVID is over? Is this a game-changer?

RJH: So this is a change that was coming anyway. COVID just brought it on faster. There was already the trend toward synagogues making services available virtually because the generation of digital natives really see virtual interactions to be on the same level as face-to-face interactions in a lot of ways. When the Law Committee had the conversation in November, they asked me “Do you think all congregations will be streaming services someday?” and I said very flippantly, well only the ones that are still in business!

Cross-posted to the Detroit Jewish News

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