Editor’s Note: Rabbi Jennifer Frenkel is senior rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Before this past March, our Friday Shabbat preparations at Congregation M’kor Shalom looked a lot like they would in many Synagogues around the country. We’d begin the morning with our Clergy celebrating Shabbat with our Early Childhood Center students in our main Sanctuary. The highlight of that program each week came after the songs and story, and after that week’s birthday celebrations. It was the moments right after, where each class would come up and have a chance to give the Rabbi and Cantor a “high-5” or a hug, a handshake or a fistbump. And then we’d make sure the Sanctuary was set up for that evening’s congregational service.
Now, our preparation has taken on a new dimension, having moved all Synagogue services, programming, and events to Zoom and Facebook Live. Pre-Covid19, we had been live-streaming services from our Sanctuary several times a month for years, but the vast majority of people joined us in person. We’d coordinate rides for congregants unable to drive themselves, and the number of people who took advantage of our live-stream of Shabbat services was typically under ten.
Once the pandemic hit, and we were no longer able to hold services in our Synagogue building, we really didn’t know what to expect. It has been incredible to see so many people logging on to services each week, including many who were unable to join us in person previously.
In our now-virtual ECC and Religious School classrooms, the students took to Zoom quite seamlessly, learning how to change their backgrounds, mute and unmute themselves, and write notes in the chat box before we even figured out what a chat box was!
But we quickly noticed that there were some familiar faces missing from our Zoom screens as we gathered for Shabbat each week. Particularly those people who were not comfortable with technology, did not own a computer or tablet, or who were struggling to figure out how to navigate through Zoom and Facebook.
We were missing them, they were missing us, and we quickly recognized that this was not only a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be met with creativity and our Synagogue values.
First and foremost, we are a Family, and we strive to ensure that everyone who wishes to be a part of M’kor Shalom can be. Engagement and connection are key, and so we began reaching out to those “regulars” we hadn’t been seeing since we moved to Zoom, as well as to our Seniors. Not everyone had family or friends nearby, and we took the opportunity, with each phone call, to determine if there were any immediate needs we could help with, to see if they were able to log-on to our online Synagogue programming, and what help, if any, we could offer.
And then we partnered with members of our congregation who have technological skill and set them up with some of our Senior members for one-on-one tutorials. And we also worked to figure out who might need a computer or tablet in order to watch services, and who might have an old one to donate. We had members of our congregation step up to create instruction guides for logging on to Zoom, we’ve had members walk other members through setting up Facebook accounts, and not only has it enabled more of our Families to access our Synagogue services and programs, but it has also provided opportunities for new relationships to grow among people within our Congregation who may not have met otherwise.
As we look ahead to the High Holy Days, we know we will have to increase these efforts to make sure everyone continues to feel connected and a part of all that we are doing and offering virtually. We are working on creating “hotspots” for those without internet access, and extending our own Synagogue WiFi for socially distanced events in our parking lot.
While we look forward to the day when we can come back together in our Sanctuary, this time has reminded us that a Synagogue Family is so much more than a building. It’s the sacredness inherent in working together to make sure everyone feels cared for and connected — it’s the Divine Presence that is present among us when we are in relationship with one another.