Zoom Wonders

This week, I was touched directly for the first time by Covid-19 when Jay Nevins passed away at the age of 59. Jay was the brother of Karen, a very beloved friend of mine. While coronavirus was the direct cause of his death, he had been playing fast and loose with his health for many years. At the time he passed away, he was stubbornly ignoring his uncontrolled type 2 diabetes and undergoing dialysis for failed kidneys.

Jay died in upper New York state, while Karen and her husband Brian live in central New Jersey. They watched on Zoom while a Chabad rabbi who had been a friend of her father’s conducted the funeral alone except for the funeral director. That evening New Jersey time they held a Zoom minyan. The rabbi who conducted the service was in Florida, Brian’s brother was in Texas, his sister was in Virginia, and I joined them from Australia. The call brought with it some of the limitations I’ve come to associate with such online gatherings: the rabbi Goldie Milgram shared a meditative song at the beginning and end of the service, and the sound quality was pretty terrible. We couldn’t sing together, because of how much lag there was among all of our connections. Some participants struggled a bit with the technology–for example the older couple whose camera was directed on the lower part of their faces throughout the call. This did not change the fact that this group of twelve or so people, scattered across the United States and on the other side of the world, were able to come together to support Karen in her grief.

There have been many many downsides to the Covid-19 pandemic. More appear each day. Australia appears to have made it through this first stage pretty well, but we have no idea what the future holds. Our success does not make life any easier for the billions of people suffering in just about every corner of the world. Our lives are far less predictable, far less comfortable, and quite a bit scarier than they were two months ago.

And yet in the midst of catastrophe there have been shining moments. I still remember the wonder of that very first Friday night Zoom service—only the second Zoom call I’d ever attempted. I watched as faces magically appeared on my computer screen, coming together from disparate corners of the Adelaide area to celebrate Shabbat. The service followed several days of furious debate about whether Zoom was preferable or whether I should attempt to livestream from the bimah so as to replicate a normal Friday night service. The synagogue’s internet was far too slow to support such an attempt, and from the moment that I saw our community come together on my screen, I knew that a shared prayer experience was the way to go.

The next day, my sister and her family showed up at our Shabbat morning service from their couch in Iowa. Since then, our services have included participants joining us from the United States, Spain, Israel, New Zealand and, this last Shabbat morning, Indonesia. The world beyond Australia’s borders is currently unattainable, but at the same time, the world has been showing up to services at Beit Shalom.

The word “unprecedented” has been used and overused in recent months. Things are very bad in an unprecedented way, but I also think they are very good. A few weeks ago, I participated in a Multifaith prayer service with clergy from three continents. A Buddhist priest in Tokyo chanted sutras. A Muslim imam in Detroit read inspirational words from the Qur’an. A Jain priest, drowsy in Edmonton at 5:00 am, offered prayers from his own tradition for healing. I sang Debbie Friedman’s setting of the mishebeyrach prayer for healing which has become a part of our services during this time. I know that in pandemics past, prayers have been offered in many languages and from many traditions. But when have we seen the whole world literally come together to pray for healing? Unprecedented good.

In the weeks to come, I don’t want to lose that sense of closeness. Some people have already called for at least one monthly Zoom service. They appreciate the intimacy and yes, the convenience of joining in from their own homes. Others will eagerly anticipate the time when they can sit in our beloved sanctuary with others. Personally, I want to make sure we figure out what has been special in these last weeks and hold on to it. It has brought so much shalom into this fraught time. Shabbat shalom!

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