Almost one year ago Sutton Place Synagogue shut its sanctuary doors to in-person, daily worship but we never closed. Over the course of one weekend we, like so many institutions, made decisions to open a door to worship in a very different way.
We learned very quickly that if we attempted to “copy and paste” from what was perceived as normal, we wouldn’t be successful in spiritually and emotionally marking this sudden departure from what was known. And so, the Zoom minyan began, and over the past 12 months, the lessons that we have learned from minyan are lessons that can be and should be applied to so much of how we approach our lives today.
Experimentation is necessary. As we gathered together in those early weeks, we asked how we were going to gather, who was and who wasn’t going to remain on mute, and how we were going to ensure that everyone felt connected. What emerged was a special balance between the voices we were used to hearing and the new voices of individuals, who were able to elevate our services by leading and reading Torah. We understood that singing together wouldn’t work, and yet the cacophony of voices reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish was crucial to the shared sense of mourning. We needed to be together in comfort, even if we were alone physically. This has been a year of experimentation. Whether in minyanim, schools, offices, sports or lifecycle events, we have needed to try new things. To be flexible. And to appreciate that we might miss the mark and yet there is always tomorrow.
Be intentional with our words. As we transitioned to the Zoom service, I, as the rabbi, grappled with what we should say, not just how we should say it. There were questions under Jewish law about what words and prayers could be recited over a Zoom screen. I made the decision, with the support of the leadership that yes, this new space would constitute a prayer space. Yet I also understood that emotionally it needed to be different, to acknowledge the loss and rebuilding. And so now we read a selection of the Torah but without the traditional brachot, or blessings. Like many, we say a blessing over Torah study. For many months, we added the petitionary Avinu Malkeynu, as we understood in our kishkes that we were living (and dying) through a time of heartache and heartbreak. A prayer that we so often associate with the High Holidays, the holidays of Life and Death, needed to be recited, even during the spring and summer in New York City.
However, not wanting liturgy to get stale, we stopped reciting Avinu Malkeynu as we approached Elul, the month leading up to the High Holidays, and started to recite Psalm 27. (“The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear?”) But instead of reciting it quickly, silently and without appreciation, we would often read it out loud, reminding ourselves of what is important. It meant that there would be prayers we would skip.
We learned we could preserve the essence of the service even if there were words not recited. Being thoughtful about what we were saying, even if it meant one less kaddish or one less psalm, was welcomed. It showed an understanding of and appreciation for the development of a prayer service. Focusing on what we say and how we say it has been a part of this year of growth as well. If we want to be in relationship with others, we need people to understand what we are trying to communicate. We need to be able to listen to others. This is not always easy in a virtual environment, but when it is done well, we can learn and hear so much more.
Emphasize a sense of normalcy. As important as it is to be innovative, it is also important to feel a sense of routine and normalcy, especially at times when our lives have felt out of control. We need to know that the core prayers that we are used to will still be there. That the people we expect to see still show up. Routine doesn’t need to be rote. Routine can create meaning and stability. As one of our minyan “regulars” shared recently, “Virtual minyan has given back to me a little something that this quarantine has taken away: a reason to get up at a fixed time, a spiritual way to start my day and of course, getting to hear our prayer leader sing Psalm 150. It almost makes things feel ‘normal’ at least for a moment.”
Celebrate the good even when life is hard. One of the best parts of our morning minyan is our daily “pause” before we sing Psalm 150, a psalm which focuses on the word Hallelujah. We ask if there are any birthdays or anniversaries to celebrate, or successes at work or home. We also hear how people celebrate the sun shining, the ability to get a vaccine appointment, or a meaningful socially distanced get-together with a friend. Stopping daily to display gratitude has deepened all of our appreciation for the good that can still exist around us.
Appreciate that community can transcend geography. It became quite clear, early on in this pandemic, that our world was inextricably linked, in ways that we never truly understood. Even with the ubiquity of social media, I don’t believe that most communities understood that one could create community beyond geographical boundaries. Our daily minyan, which tripled in size from when we met in person, includes people from Boca Raton, Philadelphia, upstate New York, Maryland and throughout the tri-state area. The daily gatherings have shown us that we can connect with people if we are deliberate. People don’t need to be “out of sight and out of mind.”
Make time for pain. As people have joined our minyan either to say kaddish or to mark a yahrzeit, we have made space for them to share the memories of their loved ones. While this should seem so simple and obvious, it took the pandemic to add this to our routine. This has been a year of pain. The minyan has been a source of strength and stability as our Cantor Emeritus grieved the death of his daughter, as granddaughters recite the Shema and V’ahavta as their young mother says kaddish for her father, and so on. Allowing the space for pain and grief, vulnerability and memory is something that all of our communities can learn. We don’t need to shy away from the uncomfortable; we need to embrace the messiness of life in order to process our experiences.
Always keep learning. For so long, our minyan automatically would study the passages of Torah included in the prayer book as part of the prescribed moment of Torah study. This year, we have spent time learning Mishnah Brachot, the rabbinic teachings from 1,800 years ago around the development of prayer. Each morning, we take a moment and study a mishnah. It is incredible to see how the intentionality of the rabbis can be a familiar lens through which we can experience prayer today. How we focus, how we do things when we are in danger, how we lead, how we make up for errors, what we bless, are all core questions from then that resonate today. What is important is that we don’t rush through our service but we stop and appreciate all of these elements.
The question is no longer what gathering looks like during the pandemic, but what will gathering look like once full re-entry is possible.
So this brings us to now, a moment where we realized that our synagogue never closed but evolved. The question is no longer what gathering looks like during the pandemic, but what will gathering look like once full re-entry is possible.
I believe in buildings and cannot wait until we return. And we will re-open our doors. But what we have learned is that, through the power of intentional prayer, prayer that is motivated by the core questions of connecting to God, tradition, and one another, we can transform our communities and ourselves (and our souls), no matter how we physically gather.
Rachel Ain is the rabbi at Sutton Place Synagogue.