Monday, December 28, 2020

New App Enhances Prayer During Pandemic

Prayer in Judaism is an interesting concept. While there is nothing inherently wrong with one praying by oneself, there is certainly a preference for communal prayer. Worshiping k’yachid, or individually, satisfies the Jewish obligation for daily prayer, but there are several sections of the prayer service that can only be done when a minyan (prayer quorum of ten people) is constituted.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the strong desire we have for communal worship has posed a challenge to clergy. Certainly, technology has solved many of the inherent problems that occur when it is impossible for community members to congregate in person due to health risks. We have seen how video conferencing apps like Zoom have become commonplace for group worship. But we have also seen examples of what happens when technology fails, as it did for dozens of congregations dependent on the synagogue website company Shul Cloud, whose servers failed on Yom Kippur, the most heavily trafficked day of the year for virtual synagogue prayer.

Congregations are not simply relying on Zoom to be the savior of communal prayer during the pandemic. New, innovative options are being created to give congregants the feeling of truly being together in a community, whether for Shabbat and holiday prayer services, bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, or funerals and shiva minyans.

A new cutting-edge technological prayer program that is gaining in popularity amid the pandemic is Visual T’filah. Created by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, this app was used by nearly half of the Reform community during the recent High Holidays to enhance prayer and help worshipers find deeper meaning in prayers.

Rather than simply show the prayer leader and pages from the siddur (prayer book) on Zoom, Visual T’filah creates a multimedia experience while participants are engaged in the prayer service. It utilizes contemporary technology to display liturgy intermingled with art and other visual imagery. Interestingly, Visual T’filah has existed for several years but because of the pandemic the resource has gained newfound, widespread use as congregations look to enhance their remote services using Zoom. The technology is rather simple since it is a collection of PowerPoint files. Each congregation can use the multimedia files as they see fit during the virtual prayer service and can create custom slides as well.

Local congregations in Michigan have adopted Virtual T’filah already. "We have used Visual T'filah since we began meeting virtually this spring,” explained Rabbi Matthew J. Zerwekh of Temple Emanuel-El in Oak Park. “I am thankful to have an artistic and easy-to-use tool that can help make our services accessible to our congregation, no matter if they have a prayerbook at home or not. Visual T'filah allows us to be flexible and creative with our liturgy and music while presenting a beautiful and meaningful presentation of the service."

When hundreds are gathered in a sanctuary, we are engaged in many sensory experiences. This is not the case when we are looking at a computer, tablet or phone screen and only seeing other people in boxes, as is the case with Zoom. Virtual T’filah seeks to provide some of those sensory experiences that add so much to our prayer experience making it feel more spiritual.

Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) made the case for Visual T’filah. “While this remarkable technology has been used successfully by congregations nationwide for years,” she said, “we’re very proud to see how rabbis and their communities have embraced Visual T’filah to find new opportunities for meaningful spiritual experiences during this challenging time.”

Visual T’filah was created by Rabbi Dan Medwin, who serves as Director of Digital Media for the CCAR. Congregations do not have to be affiliated with the Reform Movement to purchase a license for Visual T’filah. In fact, the files can be edited to adapt to any congregation and for any type of prayer service, from a high holiday gathering to an intimate bat mitzvah celebration.

Visual T’filah is just another example of the ingenuity that Jewish leaders are demonstrating during these unprecedented times. While it is still difficult to believe that we haven’t been able to gather as a community in our houses of worship since the early part of this year, we have been making due and technology has played an important role in helping us feel as if we are gathered together to worship and give thanks to God.

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News.

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