During a Shabbat morning Zoom service at West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Rabbi Emily Cohen generally mutes congregants for the majority of the service.
“It’s the easiest way to keep the services moving forward and make sure the prayers are audible to everyone,” she said.
There is one exception: All congregants are invited to unmute themselves to recite the Shema, which remains a centerpiece of the service.
“We create a sacred cacophony,” Rabbi Cohen described to me over Zoom. “We recite the line as a community, as one.”
A “sacred cacophony” may also describe the unparalleled experience of taking on a new pulpit during the Covid-19 pandemic. Rabbi Cohen was selected as the congregation’s new spiritual leader mid-April, when the global pandemic was peaking in New York City. She first led Shabbat services the weekend of July 4. With many of her congregants 65 and older, services have remained remote.
“It’s been a challenge,” said Rabbi Cohen, 33, who spoke about the difficulty of “reading the room while giving a Zoom drasha — it’s nearly impossible. I’ve asked my congregants for forgiveness in advance in case I say anything that is taken the wrong way.”
Over the last few months, area rabbis across denominational lines have faced similar and unique challenges as they take up clergy roles amid the unparalleled circumstances.
They include Rabbi Diana Fersko, the new senior rabbi at the Village Temple in downtown Manhattan. Rabbi Scott Perlo joined Romemu Brooklyn as its new full-time rabbi in July. In Princeton, Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg began as interim rabbi of The Jewish Center — joining a synagogue still in mourning following the sudden death in December of its leader, Rabbi Adam Feldman.
Rabbi Schoenberg is more than familiar with the normal orientation process for a new rabbi, having for years directed the rabbinic career advancement office at the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “I am only sorry that I begin my time here in the middle of a pandemic,” he wrote to congregants in June. “This is a time when the congregation’s tragic loss of Rabbi Feldman z”l has been compounded by the numerous losses we each have experienced as part of this COVID crisis.” Schoenberg invited his new congregation to share their “thoughts and feelings with me as together we explore this new and difficult territory of life in a time of COVID.”
Rabbi Benny Berlin began his position as the rabbi of the BACH Jewish Center in Long Beach, New York, the first week in June. At that point, the New York State Department of Health had begun allowing small social gatherings to resume with 10 or fewer people in attendance. This meant the minimum requirement for a minyan, or quorum of 10 men, the Orthodox law requires to recite certain parts of the liturgy.
“I had to turn people down from attending minyan my very first week on the job,” said Berlin.
Rabbi Berlin, 30, recently moved with his wife, Sara, and their young son to the neighborhood to be in walking distance from the synagogue. Previously, he and his wife had worked as the JLIC campus couple at Queens College.
“We were used to running events — shiurim, meet ‘n’ greets, challah bakes,” said Rabbi Berlin. When he found out he got the job at the BACH Jewish Center, he thought he would use the same techniques to build community as he had at his previous job. “We came in with a plan, and that all quickly had to change,” he said.
Despite the circumstances, the Berlins have still managed to carry through with some of their programs, albeit virtually. Sara Berlin hosts a monthly community challah-bake via zoom. Together, Rabbi Berlin and his wife host a musical havdalah every Saturday night as a way to mark the sabbath’s end — one recording of the event received over 500 views.
“People crave community, and so they are still joining,” said Rabbi Berlin. “We’re physically distant, but socially together.”
Both Rabbi Berlin and Rabbi Cohen said there are some perks to being a new rabbi during COVID.
“Working with our cantor during online services has been seamless, because we are able to message each other,” said Rabbi Cohen, who said she’ll shoot the congregation’s cantor a private message on Zoom while services are taking place. “‘We’re running a bit late — should we cut something out?’ When we finally get back to the actual bimah, I’ll have to learn how to communicate these messages in a different way.”
“Being a virtual rabbi, I can click in whenever I want,” said Rabbi Berlin, who said he has been scheduling Zoom meeting and phone calls to get to know his congregants. “Overall the challenge has made me more flexible and innovative.”
Like many of her congregants, Cohen is battling “Zoom fatigue.” The rapid shift from in-person services to virtual services was not technologically difficult — “I’m a digital native,” she said — but emotionally challenging.
“There was nothing I could do to physically mark the movement,” she said of leading her first Shabbat service as a pulpit rabbi from her living room, in front of the same laptop she’d been staring at for months. “I was sitting in the same spot, using the same screen.” She added that the synagogue will be getting her a new computer to help orchestrate High Holiday services from afar — “at least opening a different computer for work will shift the degree to which everything feels the same.”
Still, Rabbi Cohen has been “so impressed” with the dexterity of her congregants when it comes to integrating new technology into age-old traditions. Out of the 225 households that make up the congregation, “many are older people,” she said. “A lot of the older folks don’t understand the raise hand function, and will raise their physical hand,” she said, describing some of the minor difficulties she has encountered when leading a class or service. “But there is such an eagerness to learn.”
Despite everything, Rabbi Cohen reports that her synagogue attendance is up.
“We’ve seen a definite uptick in the number of people who join Friday night and Shabbat morning services,” said Rabbi Cohen, attributing the higher numbers in part to the new “ease of access.”
“For a lot of older folks, many of whom are not comfortable leaving their apartments even now, attending virtual services is a perfect opportunity to connect socially,” said Rabbi Cohen. Moving forward, the synagogue plans to continue offering virtual options, even when congregants feel ready to return to the building. “We’re in the midst of installing fiber optic wiring with the idea that even when we go back to the building, we’ll be able to continue live streaming services.”
And, while so many things have changed over the last few months, some traditions remain steadfast. “The unofficial schnapps club still meets every every shabbat morning after services,” said Rabbi Cohen, who said she was pleasantly surprised when she received an invite to join the club her first week on the job. The group is now virtual, with alternating Zoom hosts every week. Said Cohen: “When so much is changing, traditions take on even more meaning.”