Rabbi Richard Perlman never imagined that his broadcasting skills from a previous career in radio might someday come in handy in a different setting.
Yet, he reflected, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Perlman’s Temple Ner Tamid of the North Shore in Peabody is one of many area congregations holding High Holiday services online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Rabbis who began offering remote Shabbat services now face the multi-day challenge of the High Holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah from Sept. 18 to 20 and continuing with Yom Kippur on Sept. 27 and 28.
The more traditional Chabad centers in Peabody and Swampscott will hold a series of small outdoor and tent services on their campuses. “We think it’s important to have an in-person option available for people,” Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman of the Alevy Family Chabad of Peabody said. “We don’t have Zoom on Shabbat or holidays. Zoom is not an option for us.”
Other rabbis interviewed for this article spoke of abbreviated services for audiences watching from home, and of building upon the technological skills they’ve had to develop since coronavirus closed synagogues nationwide in March, with many remaining physically shut.
Ner Tamid is preparing to hold online High Holiday services for the first time in its history. Perlman said that his technological knowledge has helped the temple before ‒ in 2018 ‒ when it inaugurated what he called a first-in-the-nation religious school offering an option for parents to tune in virtually.
“We used a different platform at the time,” Perlman said. “Zoom is much easier.”
In Marblehead, Temple Emanu-El also has been offering remote opportunities since the pre-COVID era. The temple began live-streaming Shabbat about a year ago, and in mid-March it shifted to an entirely remote model. Rabbi David Meyer sees this as valuable preparation for the temple’s first-ever remote High Holidays.
“I would say on March 1, only a small percentage of our congregation knew how to use Zoom, and for that matter Facebook Live,” Meyer said. “The fact that everyone had to learn along the way the past six months [shows] how big a change [this has been].
“The challenges are very significant. Nobody, for the most part, none of us had experience or [was] trained in leading our congregations in these circumstances or with the technology that most are choosing to utilize.”
One synagogue that reflects the magnitude of the change is Congregation Ahavas Achim in Newburyport. The synagogue had never held online programming before COVID-19; now, all of its worship and community gatherings are virtual.
Ahavas Achim got some welcome news for live-streaming the High Holidays. It has installed what it calls a new, high-tech audiovisual system, thanks to a member of the First Religious Society Unitarian Universalist Church and a grant from the Lee L. and Judith E. Selwyn Foundation and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, according to a statement.
At Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, Rabbi Steven Lewis shared his own experiences with online worship. Like many, Lewis had never used Zoom before, and he reflected on the journey in an email sent to the congregation and shared with The Jewish Journal.
He recalled that when he initially began seeing worshipers as faces in Zoom windows, he estimated that he needed to speak loudly to make himself heard. This left him drained after each session, but he realized that he could speak at a lower volume and still be heard.
“With a few technical bumps, we were able to offer our usual weekly services (rebranded ‘zervices’) and Torah study and also additional offerings from congregants,” Lewis wrote. “The initial crisis of disruption had passed. Our virtual ‘gatherings’ felt like a stable bridge that would allow us to stay connected and continue meeting our synagogue goals.”
He noted that Ahavat Achim has been able to offer shorter programs online that would not have occurred in-person, with the commute to temple ruling out programs lasting under a half-hour. Online, however, he has offered Havdalah, counting of the Omer, and recently shofar sessions throughout the month of Elul.
For the High Holidays, he’s preparing a shorter time length as well.
“We won’t make it longer than a Shabbat service,” Lewis said. “We’re not going to try to do the whole thing. We’re doing abbreviations, highlights.
“It’s not that we don’t think it would be successful to try to read the entire Torah portion or silent Amidah or the kind of repetitions, the full repetition with long holiday passages, the way we normally do. We cut the length pretty significantly … It’s very much an experimental enterprise.”
Although rabbis were interviewed separately, the prevailing opinion was that they could not predict how many people would log on for the High Holidays. Emanu-El, for instance, does not require preregistration. Several hundred people watch the Marblehead temple’s Shabbat services either in real time or in a recorded format.
At Ner Tamid, Perlman was amazed by the numbers from a previous online holiday service. The second-night Passover Seder was seen on YouTube, Facebook, and Zoom, and resulted in 2,800 clicks.
He noted that technology does present extra challenges than in-person services.
In synagogue, Perlman said, “You say, ‘turn to page 65, rise.’ With a service on-screen, you’re opening up the microphones, muting people, talking into a camera.”
And, he said, although some in-person regulars at the temple are continuing to attend services online, that’s not the case for everyone.
“There are some we haven’t seen,” Perlman said. “Some people can’t do virtual. They have not seen it … “It’s going to be a very interesting year.”
And yet, the general mood seems to be one of hope for 5781.
“With enough experience, we feel comfortable and ready to offer to the congregation an experience of a beautiful High Holidays, even remotely,” Meyer said.