SWAMPSCOTT — Since 2020, Covid has significantly affected Jewish religious practice nationwide, and Shirat Hayam is no exception. Almost overnight, services — especially minyanim — went virtual by necessity. For many, the inability to gather in person — the very essence and meaning of “congregation” — is a hardship for which no amount of technology can compensate.
Nonetheless, this sudden shift has not been without its silver linings. According to tabletmag.com, an extraordinary number of people have engaged in Jewish experiences online owing to two important factors: the efforts by synagogues to put their programming and worship online immediately following the March 2020 moratorium on in-person gatherings, and the global accessibility of content.
For some locals, the convenience of attending services, study sessions and programming from their cozy homes has been a plus, especially during the cold, dark and snowy months. For others who live far beyond Shirat Hayam’s Swampscott location, virtual programming has made it possible for them to participate in services and feel part of the community.
“Shirat Hayam has been a leader in accessibility,” said Rabbi Michael Ragozin, noting that the temple removed stairs from its bima, revamped Shabbat services, and began Shulcasting almost two decades ago. “Investing in new technologies like Zoom, microphones, and webcams is a natural expression of our commitment to making a dynamic Judaism and Jewish community available to all.”
Arinne Braverman of Natick regularly attends Friday night and Saturday morning Shabbat services, usually via Facebook Live. Despite not having set foot in the physical building since becoming a member, she still feels connected.
She attends services online with her mother, Diana Edelman, also a CSH member, who lives fulltime in California. Although she misses the one-on-one informal and impromptu conversations with congregants, “I love not having to commute to and from shul,” Arinne said.
She believes strongly that people looking to join a synagogue should consider more than just its geographical convenience. Her own search took her quite a while. With the pandemic and the sudden possibility of remote attendance, she expanded her search from local to nationwide.
She ultimately chose CSH specifically because of its clergy. She first met Rabbi Ragozin when she was Executive Director of Northeastern University Hillel and he contacted her to offer his support after reading an article about Hillel’s fight against BDS and the surge in campus antisemitism. Later, he invited her to partner on CSH’s Campus Antisemitism Task Force training.
Although her mother, Diana, belonged to a local, in-person Reform synagogue, it wasn’t the right fit for her. At Arinne’s suggestion, she checked out a Shirat Hayam Shabbat service on Zoom and found what she was looking for. After confirming that remote access was not just a temporary response to Covid and would continue even when worship returned to in-person services, she joined.
She would like to attend in person, but recognizes that is not a viable option. “I would prefer to interact with other members so I would have a sense of belonging to a community or extended family,” she said.
Despite some annoyances (remote participants singing out of sync or not muting themselves while carrying on personal conversations during services), she likes the convenience and flexibility of remote attendance, especially the ability to mute her own microphone and video camera.
“Remote attendance provides me with the chance to participate in a service and enjoy the music, singing, spirituality and d’var Torah,” Diana said.
Donna Revman also enjoys remote Zoom services. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina but grew up in Marblehead, where she and her family attended Temple Israel. Even after she left the area, she always returned to Temple Israel and, after the merger with Temple Beth El in 2005, Shirat Hayam for the High Holy Days. When she couldn’t attend in person, she would watch the services on Shulcast.
She started attending minyan after her mother, Sylvia Revman z”l, passed away. “It was a way my sister in Massachusetts, my brother in New York, and I in North Carolina could honor my mother together during shloshim,” she said.
She prefers the more interactive Zoom services to Shulcast. “It gives me the opportunity to see the people attending, with a chance to say hello before and after the service, and even the ability to participate sometimes by leading one of the responsive reading sections,” she said.
Holly Strogoff, who lives in Florida, began attending the evening minyan services weekly after her father passed away. “I knew I wanted to honor him by saying Kaddish, but I wasn’t sure how this would work,” she said.
Rabbi Michael suggested she check out Zoom services. “I am grateful to participate in services in the community where I was raised,” she said.
When she signed on to attend her first service, she was immediately welcomed into the group. “Although sometimes Zoom can seem impersonal, I found the services to be warm and welcoming. Since I started attending these minyan services, I have found comfort in the connection and plan to continue to attending,” Holly added.
A version of this article first appeared in the ‘New Wave’, the Congregation Shirat Hayam newsletter.