Online Seders and Virtual Bar Mitzvahs: Is the Virus Changing Judaism? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, of Beth Tfiloh, gives instruction on how to conduct Passover rituals and Seders during a "Lunch and Learn" online conference session with some of his congregation while staying in his study at home.
SourceKenneth K. Lam/Getty

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Times of isolation require people to find connectedness in new ways.

By Carly Stern

In March, Alex Rosenbluth formally entered Jewish adulthood — in his living room. Dressed in his synagogue suit, Rosenbluth sang his Torah portion to more than 200 friends and family members over Zoom. His family constructed a faux podium out of cardboard and fashioned a mini arc from a shoebox. His rabbi led the service, while Rosenbluth’s cousins danced around on their screens.

When the service ended, Rosenbluth’s family tossed candy at him — to symbolize sweet celebration — before eating a kiddush lunch of bagels and lox, as well as homemade challah their rabbi had dropped in the mailbox. The family posed for backyard photos in Briarcliff Manor, New York, with a miniature tripod Rosenbluth’s 10-year-old sister had gotten as a birthday gift from an aunt to fuel her quarantine penchant: making TikTok videos.

This was no ordinary bar mitzvah — but these are no ordinary times. American Jews are modifying long-standing rituals in the age of coronavirus and quarantines, when the community elements on which those traditions rely are forbidden. Many families are delaying b’nai mitzvahs, which usually involve large gatherings, until after social distancing protocols lift. Some rabbis have clarified that children won’t have to learn a new Torah portion, although the ceremony’s passages correspond with specific weeks. “We’ve broken every norm there is,” says Jonathan Jaffe, senior rabbi at the reform Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, New York.

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Alex Rosenbluth had his bar mitzvah service at his home in Briarcliff Manor, New York, on March 21.

Meanwhile, the Rabbinical Assembly and the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards have supported an adaptation allowing for remote “minyans” — traditionally a quorum of at least 10 Jewish people who need to gather in order to pray. Other congregations are hosting online services and cooking classes, helping people ready their Passover Seders for the holiday beginning at sundown Wednesday. Beyond the joyful, Jews are adapting mourning, burial and funeral practices too. Sitting shiva — the cherished tradition of a weeklong mourning period, usually full of copious food, hugs, laughter and storytelling — must be done through a screen. While funeral homes are issuing strict safety guidelines, some rabbis are bouncing recommendations through Facebook groups, trying to be as flexible as possible. “We’re all kind of lost in the dark and trying to figure it out for ourselves,” says Jaffe.

Schmuel goes to synagogue to talk to God; I go to synagogue to talk to Schmuel.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe, Temple Beth El

Other religions are adapting too. Churches are taking more services online, and Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, is empty. To be sure, many conservative and Orthodox Jewish temples likely won’t adapt some of these new elastic rules, say rabbis. There also have been instances of ultra-Orthodox groups going ahead with gatherings in recent weeks, ignoring the outbreak.

But others are taking drastic steps. Nobody is touching the Torah, shaking hands or gathering for services. At Temple Emanu-El in Closter, New Jersey, weekly streamed services are now offered daily, and academic classes are online, says David-Seth Kirshner, a conservative rabbi there. Observant Jews who don’t use technology during the Sabbath are tuning in to Zoom services. “I think the world understands this is equivalent to rules of war,” says Kirshner.

These shifts are spawning an unlikely contradiction. On the one hand, they’re dismantling the tight-knit community aspect of religion. Jaffe cites an old joke: “Schmuel goes to synagogue to talk to God; I go to synagogue to talk to Shmuel.” Rituals done in isolation make it harder to foster engagement. “How do you sustain any sense of community … if you’re sitting alone at home looking into a computer screen?” Jaffe asks.

But these changes are also sparking an uptick in participation among nonobservant Jews. “People are more connected to the community than I’ve ever seen before in my life,” says Kirshner, noting that those who rarely come to synagogue are attending e-services. The Rosenbluth family invited far more guests to their virtual event than were invited to the original one, says Stacey Rosenbluth, Alex’s mother. People can get their dose of Judaism with less effort — and some wonder if this could spark a revival of at-home connectedness among those not regularly plugged in.

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Adam, Stacey and Sophie Rosenbluth watch Alex read his fourth aliyah and final part of his Torah portion.

Rachel Heimann, a 24-year-old Washington, D.C., resident raised as a Reform Jew, typically travels to New Jersey to celebrate Passover with family. This year, she will be confined to her apartment. Heimann plans to host a traditional Seder dinner — she managed to track down the necessary ingredients in one grocery run — for her two non-Jewish roommates. The attire will likely be their go-to, “pajama glam” — hair, makeup and one’s best-looking pajama set.

Funerals can cut both ways too in these times. The lack of physical presence can make them “devastating,” Jaffe says. He recently participated in one (it wasn’t a virus-related death) where immediate family pulled up in cars to the gravesite, one by one, and read their eulogies from afar. The spouse returned home to an empty apartment. They tried to facilitate storytelling like a shiva over the phone, but the widow asked them to cut it short.

Kirshner, meanwhile, has led virtual funerals where many who weren’t close to the deceased logged in to show the family strength in numbers. That urgent need for community ties is blurring usual boundaries: Jaffe will soon start having virtual drinks with congregation members.

In conservative communities, these adapted practices might not last once the threat of the virus fades. “Just because we can doesn’t mean that should be the new norm,” Kirshner says. The participation surge could also subside when social distancing lifts. “I don’t know if half the synagogue’s going to need to resign because they can’t afford to pay dues,” he adds.

But for now, at least, those like Heimann are finding meaning in the story of Passover itself, which covers everything from the Ten Plagues to the chase of freedom. “A very Jewish value to have … is the idea that it can always be worse,” she says.

Heimann cites the common Passover Seder refrain: “Next year in Jerusalem.” From the stories of ancient Egypt to a modern pandemic, coming together to dream of better days is a sentiment American Jews know well. Even if it’s over a computer screen.

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