Nathan Abrams talks to Dr. Joshua Edelman about his new research project into how best to conduct religion online.
As Rosh Hashanah looms, how do we conduct online religious services in the age of Covid? This is an essential question, as we prepare for what is, unquestionably, the most important period in the Jewish calendar.
The answer to this conundrum is something that two liberal Jewish academics have been given over £200,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in order to find out. They are Dr. Joshua Edelman and Dr. Alana Vincent who work at MMU and the University of Chester respectively.
As they point out, ‘Funerals, weddings, birth rituals, and holiday observances are vital to people’s psychological wellbeing and sense of community, especially given the sense of unease created by the pandemic.’ But how do you run a funeral when mourners can’t gather? How is that being solved by rabbis, priests, ministers and imams? The solution one group finds is being shared by other groups.
I spoke to Joshua to ask him about the project and its key findings. He opened by saying, ‘The first big test was Passover seders. We are going to learn a lot from the High Holidays.’ But there is a key difference. Passover is a family celebration while the high holydays are rabbi-led community events.
When I asked him what he had discovered so far, he said, ‘There are communities doing bubkis but there are also a lot of people doing extraordinary stuff but at a very local level. They’re busy but it’s not getting shared.’
He points to Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue (NPLS) where his wife is a rabbi. They have been doing streaming services for a long time and not just during the pandemic, learning what works and what doesn’t in terms of how to integrate the use of a text, music and camera angles.
As a result, people are now watching their services from all over the globe, including South Africa, mainland Europe and Ireland, Australia, the USA. Some are personally connected to shul members and others have just found their services providentially (or serendipitously depending on which perspective you take). And now they are ‘regulars’, including one lady from Massachusetts for whom the time difference is terrible.
‘These services are perfect for those people for whom there is one shul but for whom that shul isn’t the one they want to go to.’ This reminds me of the old Jewish joke which will now need revising in the light of streamed services.
Streamed services do present issues all of their own. ‘One of the things about Jewish worship is that we are all used to having a book in our hands. This is not surprising, and we don’t think about it too much. This is very difficult online. Does everyone have the same book? Are they on the same page? How do we integrate text online?’
Different people do it in different ways is the answer.
People expect ‘liveness’. They want to feel it’s a live event. People definitely want the sense of immediacy coupled with desire to see a lot of people participate.
‘Liveness is an effect. It’s not always real. That sense that it’s really happening is important. That doesn’t mean that some things aren’t necessarily pre-recorded. So, finding that balance between the liveness and the pre-recording is a difficult balance in terms of music, singing. It’s usually difficult to have multiple musicians singing the same thing at the same time.’
But this doesn’t mean you have to do the whole thing live. Some things can be pre-recorded like the opening of the ark and other honours during the service. Others are recording and filming at home and then sending in the video.
NPLS films from the sanctuary where some people will be present in the synagogue, observing the regulations, wearing masks, observing social distance.
A drawback is that the synagogue ‘looks more like a television studio than a sanctuary’ complete with scaffolding, monitors, speakers, and cables.
‘But if it’s too polished, it’s not what people want.’ There is a tension between making it look good and promoting a feeling of participation.
‘How do we keep it human, personal and that people feel like they’re being involved?’
Singing presents particular problems: ‘Communal singing is basically impossible in a streaming environment. The timing delay is such that it doesn’t work. Personally, I find that kind of sad. I love singing with a congregation. It’s a basic part of the service. A real sense that we are doing it together. I don’t know how to recreate that online. I don’t know it anyone has. I know people miss that sense. What are people doing to fill that felt gap? I genuinely don’t know. If you do it on zoom and get everyone to sing along it sounds horrible. It just sounds like feedback.’
Another issue is the differences between the pulpit and the laptop. For example, it is important to pay attention to camera angles especially when you stand and sit.
‘Some rabbis have really figured out how to get the tone and style of speaking to camera really well so you feel connected, a sense of kavanah [sincere feeling], of holy space and there are others who look like they’ve paid no attention to the visual – they stand up and go out of frame – you get the sense they don’t want to be there, that they are being spied upon, that they don’t want to be watched.
A well-trained rabbi will have practiced and learned how to hold the room. How to lead prayers, how to give a sermon, how to hold themselves and would have learned the skill of rabbinic performativity. The skills you need to do that on camera are very different.
Rabbis may have built up years of experience on the bimah, but they won’t have on camera and they don’t get the immediate feedback.’
Obviously, this only applies to those who are not shomer shabbes. This makes me think of Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. In the age of Covid, he’d be saying, ‘I don’t Zoom on Shabbes!’
Joshua points out that pandemic will have long term effects but wonders if this will be the moment that online religious life becomes much more acceptable than before. Streaming and putting Jewish content online has happened before but this has been not very successful.
‘If you could find a way to make people committed but geographical distant really feel a part of your community, you could transform the shape of Jewish communal life. One of the main ways you assert community is by gathering. Can you do all that online? This is the moment we will find out how far you can go.’
Previously, online communities tended to be self-selected. Now, people are online not because they want to be but because they have to be. How does online religion work for people who have to go online because they don’t have another option?
‘No one was trained for this. I wonder if in ten years’ time if people will be’, he muses.
Rosh Hashanah may be the big test but it’s not too late to get it right for Yom Kippur.