Pittsburghers reflect on the experience of virtual services
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Pittsburghers reflect on the experience of virtual services

COVID-19 pandemic ensured a different holiday experience

Beth Shalom's synagogue, like those of other Pittsburgh Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations  were mainly empty for the High Holiday seasons this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Jim Busis
Beth Shalom's synagogue, like those of other Pittsburgh Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations were mainly empty for the High Holiday seasons this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Jim Busis

Like many in the Jewish community, Daniel Mosse typically would have spent much of the last few weeks in a synagogue. The Congregation Dor Hadash member would have marked the High Holidays among friends with festive meals, somber reflection and religious services.

“I would go to shul for all of the services,” said Mosse. “During Yom Kippur, I would have been in shul all morning, gone for a walk with some friends and then come back for afternoon services. I would have shared meals with a bunch of people, probably 15 or more.”

This, though, is anything but a typical year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform congregations to stream their services on a variety of platforms — sometimes utilizing more than one at the same time —including Facebook Live, YouTube and Zoom.

Mosse spent both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur watching services on Zoom while trying to find ways to make the holidays special.

“I had a few people over to my house for pre-Rosh Hashanah dinner,” he said. “We were on the back porch at two different tables, speaking very loudly, on one hand, so we could hear one another, but not very loudly, on the other hand, because we didn’t have an issue hearing each other over the 20 other people not there.”

Without having to be in Pittsburgh to attend in-person services and no prospect of bumping elbows at a table full of guests sharing kugel or brisket, Mosse was able to take a New Year’s road trip and view Dor Hadash’s live services from his daughter’s house in Detroit, Michigan. Viewing the services on Zoom together allowed the pair to add some normalcy to an abnormal experience.

“That was nice because we were able to talk through services, making little comments like we normally do, but we didn’t have to whisper,” said Mosse.

He also was able to participate as the cameraman at the congregation’s Yizkor service, which he viewed as a special honor.

And yet, despite the accommodations Mosse made, the Brazilian-born immigrant still found this year difficult, especially on Yom Kippur when he typically would have helped set up break-fast for his congregation.

“It’s really significant for me to be in shul with like-minded people that are fasting and praying,” he said. “I did not have that.”

Like Mosse, Deborah A. Baron normally shares the High Holidays with her community. In addition to attending services at Congregation Beth Shalom, she normally would have been a guest at a friend’s house to break the fast.

Instead, Baron’s daughter and fiancé spent the High Holidays at her home, where they shared a virtual dinner with Baron’s mother in Florida.

Unlike Mosse, Baron actually attended more of the services offered than in pandemic-free years.

“We had services on in our family room all day,” Baron said, “which was kind of cool, because usually, we don’t spend the entire day in services. It gave us the opportunity to be there all day, but in a more relaxed way.”

Despite the convenience of being able to view services from the comfort of home, Baron, a life coach, missed the sense of community. “Loneliness isn’t the right word,” she said, “but there was more a sense of aloneness to them.”

Holiday communal activities extend beyond religious services for Baron and her husband. The pair don’t construct their own sukkah, preferring to visit with friends to observe Sukkot. However, the possibility of confronting an airborne illness in a tight sukkah worried Baron. Friends accommodated her anxiety, allowing her to sit in the sukkah while they sat outside.

The Squirrel Hill resident said that, for her, the virtual High Holiday experience both subtracted from and added to her holiday observance.

“It took away the sense of community, the social aspect,” Baron said. “It took away the festiveness. Even though Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are somewhat solemn, there’s something festive about getting dressed up. We didn’t have that. And yet there was something just very relaxing about it and that allowed it to touch the soul in a different way.”

Beth El Congregation of the South Hills streamed its services live but also offered them recorded on YouTube, offering an asynchronistic option.

Dr. Myles Zuckerman typically attends the Conservative congregation’s High Holiday services. This year’s digital programs allowed him to appreciate Marshall McLuhan’s axiom, “the medium is the message,” from the comfort of his home.

The South Hills resident said he took full advantage of the technology. For instance, he went back and forth between gallery and speaker view on Zoom, allowing him to create a sense of community, and watched alternate parts of the service offered concurrently to the traditional service, creating a more personal, if less social holiday experience.

Because Zuckerman is so comfortable with technology, he didn’t feel that having to attend services virtually impeded his holiday observances.

“I did not feel isolated,” he said. “I may not be the typical person, but I’ve taken to Zoom in a big way. I’ve taken to that way of connecting to people. I know it’s not the same, but I don’t feel cut off. I really feel that it does connect us in a different but meaningful way.”

A few miles down the road from Beth El, Penny and David Abrams attend Temple Emanuel of the South Hills. The Reform congregation’s High Holiday offerings included a combination of prerecorded and live segments.

To maintain a sense of tradition, the Abrams got dressed up and hosted their daughter and her family for Yom Kippur. “We tried to make it feel like the holidays and had some family connections,” said Penny.

For David, the couple’s High Holiday experience is summed up by one word: “distant.”

“It’s the difference between watching a concert on TV or being there,” he said. “Most people would want to be at the concert but it’s the best we can do given the circumstances.”

Temple Sinai member Jen Silver used the virtual experience as an opportunity to create community that would not have otherwise been possible.

“You can’t really replace being in person, but I thought they did a really good job of executing it,” she said. “It was professional. I thought it was cool, because we were able to travel to different locations and watch with some friends who aren’t Jewish.”

She appreciated that the virtual services allowed the opportunity for her and her wife to take care of a few housekeeping issues while at home.

“We actually did a haircut during the service, which was interesting,” Silver said. “Some people say you should do it beforehand, but we did it during, which was cool.”

Silver attended a Sukkot event in person at Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Keren Gorban’s home, but the socially distancing required by COVID-19 created an unusual situation.

“We were hanging with our friends, but it wasn’t normal in the sense that we were really far away from each other,” she said.

For Simchat Torah, congregations got creative. Temple Emanuel created a video showing a Torah being passed between members. Careful editing meant that families who weren’t in the same room appeared to “pass” the Torah from person to person.

Beth Shalom took its observance outside, according to Rabbi Seth Adelson, singing and dancing while following social distancing precautions.

David Abrams believes that the Pittsburgh congregations did “the best they could” with a unique situation.

“That’s all you can do, right?” he said. “If you were in the military, and you were stationed in some country and you were Jewish, you would try and do the best you could. And, you know, there might not be a rabbi or a synagogue, but you would try and do the best you could do. I think, given the circumstances, that’s what they tried to do this year.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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