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Zoom Connections

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Roma Cohen writes about organising services, via Zoom, for a small and aging regional congregation.

On Sunday 26th July 2020, the 102nd Annual General Meeting of our small northern ‘friendly, warm and welcoming’ Harrogate synagogue took place for the first time through the medium of Zoom. 

The much respected, dedicated Chair of fifty years plus was to announce his retirement at this meeting during his final chairing of the AGM. He did indeed chair this annual event with his usual eloquence and aplomb. At the end of the meeting, we saw him kiss his wife gently on the cheek before, as host, I pressed ‘end meeting for all.’ 

This, alas, was the last time we saw him, as later that very day he took ill and just nine days later he passed away in hospital.

As the lone female member of the small executive with seven men, we needed to keep the flag flying for this synagogue and so I called an executive meeting to decide on roles and tasks for the future. This was well received, and all were eager to take on tasks and ensure that the synagogue would survive and thrive. 

Interim Chair

I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, immense sadness at the passing of our Chair so quickly and so unexpectedly but, on the other, an element of pride at having received the support of the executive as interim Chair on a trial six-month basis.  

Our aim is to run the synagogue effectively and successfully going into the future.  Of course, the pandemic doesn’t make life easy with changing ‘R’ numbers, rates of infections, cases and deaths rising locally and nationally, not to mention the government’s rules and regulations. How do we keep the community together? 

Covid Secure

Our very dedicated Covid-19 secure team have worked tirelessly to work out two metres this way, two metres that way, hand sanitisers, masks, ventilation and cleaning this surface and that surface, so much so that the Synagogue is now, as much as is possible, Covid secure.

How many men can we have? Can we reach a minyan? How many ladies can we have? However, sadly, the demographics of the small and core attendee membership is worrying as many of us are in our upper seventies, eighties and beyond. It would, we concluded, be irresponsible to open our beloved shul to place at risk the health and safety of our members so for the time being to date, there is only one way forward to keep the community together and that is by Zoom.

The chagim were edging ever so closer but without the luxury of a resident rabbi. Via a hotline between my president-husband, myself, and one of our much liked and respected visiting rabbis, we received much support, dedication and hard work. Together, we planned a host of Zoom services, firstly before the commencement of Rosh Hashana with the flavour of New Year services, including the blowing of the shofar. 

Then, before Yom Kippur, our community was similarly able to follow an abridged Kol Nidrei service with Yizkor on Zoom to enable prayers for our loved ones who are no longer with us. The following week was followed by a beautiful Sukkot service once again with the taste of the festival and then finally before Shemini Atzeret another superb service with familiar sabbath songs, Hallel and Yizkor again. Then a blast of Simchat Torah regular songs where all joined in as the Rabbi swayed back and forth with his Sefer Torah. It concluded with us all raising our glasses to make kiddush. It couldn’t have gone any better; the feedback was amazing; the community was still connected, and the appreciation was overwhelming.

Worsening Conditions

As I write, the pandemic is worsening, the restrictions are increasing. Yet we are determined to keep connected to our community even though there is no prospect of opening our shul to the congregation just yet. I had already arranged an executive meeting shortly after the festival season and we all agreed that Zoom services are the way to go forward for the time being so our rota of ministers are to be contacted as to their feelings about sharing a Kabbalat Shabbat service via Zoom.

We want to ensure that our usual regular officiants are invited to be part of our community. But I envisage some problems in that a few may not feel comfortable using technology and a more pressing problem is the onset of the darker days and Shabbat commencing much earlier. Perhaps not so many people would be able to sign in early afternoon due to other commitments. But we are feeling positive that we will secure willing ministers to help keep our community together. Our President will start a Kabbalat Service to engage one and all as we intend to enjoy this Friday evening service with lively Shabbat songs followed by kiddush with wine at the end of the service followed by allowing all to have a chat before the onset of Shabbat.

I am also encouraging other Zoom activities which are not service based for mid-week or Sunday sessions. I have already secured a presentation in a few weeks’ time and am currently working on Chanukah activities which will hopefully be presented by some of our younger community.  The whole executive is extremely supportive of all activities and services and so I feel I am taking the team and the synagogue forward.

I really hope that we can go some way to honouring and respecting the memory of our past Chair and Secretary of over fifty years, Philip Morris OBE, and ensuring that our warm, friendly and welcoming Harrogate Synagogue can go from strength to strength.

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Roma Cohen lives in Leeds, is Vice President of Harrogate Synagogue and co-chair of Leeds Limmud.
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