I am a regular shul goer and wherever I am I try to attend services. On a Shabbat I’m usually in shul and on a Sunday morning at home in Leeds I head for the 8.00 a.m. minyan. The pandemic has put a stop to all that.
But since 22nd March 22, I have been a member of a virtual community led by the Reverend Albert Chait of the United Hebrew Congregation in Leeds. Where I live, we are lucky the service transmission is clear without any interference.
We join the community through his Facebook page, so we can hear him, but we cannot be heard. This is not a hurdle because a weekday Shacharit service is, in many ways, mechanical; there’s no time to stop for discussion or a break, it is a short run through to start the day.
We are approaching one hundred days in our virtual community where, rain or shine, we meet at 7.20 in the morning, Mondays to Fridays, and 8.30 a.m. on a Sunday and Bank Holidays for Shacharit. Being an ‘Orthodox’ congregation, we get a day off for Shabbat morning because, according to Jewish Law, we are not allowed to use the computer on Shabbat.
What are my impressions after three months of attending this virtual Facebook service? Well, I have noticed a number of things. First, in shul, in the morning there is the opportunity for a mourner to lead the service when there’s a yahrtzeit or when they have lost someone near to them. In our virtual shul, by contrast, we have same the Chazan every day and if we keep going virtually, we may need to think about how to use the technology to share the honour of leading.
Secondly, in shul, people leading the service often mumble. They will recite the first sentence of a Psalm clearly out loud, mumble for a bit, and then recite the last sentence out loud. Many of the annotated Siddurim show you what parts you need to say out loud. But when leading a virtual service, you cannot mumble as you have to say every word clearly to keep your virtual flock on track. We get given at key points page updates to ensure we’re in the correct place.
Third, all of us who have been to morning services know what it is like to wait for a minyan. Number 8 is coming, number 9 will be here in ten minutes, and number 10 is on the way back from an early morning job in Barnsley. We don’t have that problem now: at 7.20 a.m. everyone’s ready to go and looking at the numbers on our Facebook page, we often have 30 people by 7.30 a.m., unheard of in normal times.
Our congregants are varied, most from Leeds, but Valerie checks in from Netanya each morning. She’s two hours ahead of us in time and we get a report in the comment box of what’s happening in Israel every day. It is Memorial Day and the sirens are going off, there’s been a temperature of 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Other members are Leeds exiles in London and Manchester who have the opportunity to connect with their home city.
Usually, in shul there’s a background hum of conversation. Instead, in a virtual service there’s the comment box to provide the backdrop of news and what’s happening on the ground.
Then there is the issue of gender. In the past, Orthodox weekday morning services rarely attracted women apart from the occasional bar mitzvah. Now, we have a good number who join us daily. They can join a service from which usually they’re excluded. Why are women excluded from a morning service – my perception is that in reality it has been in the Orthodox world a boy’s club; often, there are no seats available for women and no real acknowledgement or valuing of their presence.
We operate within the traditional guidelines so there’s no-one called up to the Torah, but we still hear the first portion of the weekly sedrah which is read by from the Chumash.
So, the big question now is the future. When all of this is over, do we go back to how it was, or do we keep running a daily virtual service, outreaching to people who want to feel a sense of belonging? Will we go back to sending out WhatsApp messages pleading for a tenth member of the minyan to get to shul as soon as possible or is there a better way?
My personal hope is that we can provide a constant morning virtual service accessible to all as a way of keeping in contact with the community and providing a spiritual link.