Brave New World

Former mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel once said “you never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” In an emergency, rules and norms go out the window as we try to get by in a new reality. Sometimes, the new normal gives us chance to experiment and make things better.

This morning, Adath Israel held its first virtual service. At 7:00 AM, in our chapel, I opened an online Zoom meeting and watched as 17 people joined our minyan. The services went pretty smoothly, with only minor glitches. Some participants were using a digital copy of our weekday prayerbook, and I had to slow down because I didn’t realize that scrolling through a PDF takes longer than flipping through a book. We’re still figuring out when to mute or unmute the participants.

Overall, the experience was really wonderful as people felt connected in a virtual space. We even had a member join us from Florida. It truly felt like a real minyan, even though I was reciting the prayers in an empty room (well, empty except for my son Jonah).

Our new reality for the foreseeable future is for many of our programs to move online, and this will be a great opportunity to see what we can do successfully in that arena. This Shabbat we will be holding Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdallah services over Zoom and next week we will have chances to join together for Torah on Tap and Ripped from the Headlines on that platform as well.

Technology offers opportunities but also challenges. According to Jewish tradition, there are certain parts of the services, such as the Torah reading and reciting Mourners Kaddish, that can only be done with a group of 10 Jewish adults. 19 years ago the Conservative movement approved a ruling allowing people to join a minyan online as full participants with the stipulation that there must be 10 in the room where the broadcast takes place.

That ruling would not allow us to have a full minyan now, when synagogues are closed and large gatherings banned. This morning I read the Torah portion not from a scroll, but from a book, and we did not say Kaddish. Some felt that our Zoom minyan was missing something as a result, and so after today I have reconsidered my position. Indeed, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative movement has issued an emergency ruling allowing the recitation of Mourners Kaddish at a virtual minyan in which there are fewer than 10 in any one physical location.

Beginning Friday, March 19, 2020, Adath will adopt this temporary ruling for our virtual minyanim. We will recite the Mourners Kaddish as long as there are 10 Jewish adults connected to our Zoom service. As the CJLS position states, this measure is only in effect as long as government officials ban large gatherings.

Surely Judaism will be transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic as we migrate online to “do Jewish”. Who knows where these crisis-induced opportunities will lead, as Halakha, Jewish law, must adapt in ever-changing conditions. It’s a brave new world, and I hope you are ready to explore it together.

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