Congregation B’nai Israel

 

CBI service flier

CBI Northampton Facebook post advertising their monthly, Zoom-conducted celebration for “kids under 5 and their adults.”

 

Noah Barondes interrupted his October bar mitzvah ceremony to ask, to no one in particular, “Where are they going?” This ‘they’ would be the twenty some masked and socially distanced bar mitzvah attendees, caught in the act of an awkward, would-be surreptitious shuffle to the sunlight from the cold shaded tent they were originally sitting in. This disturbance in the ceremony, although relatively humorous, is just one of the many disruptions of Northampton’s Congregation B’nai Israel’s services induced by the pandemic.

Unable to meet in person due to the risk of COVID-19 transmission, the synagogue has been forced to move its services online for streaming. This proved an immediate issue, as Conservative Jews practice Shabbat by not using electronic media (including taking pictures or being photographed, as streaming requires). This creates a whole host of restrictions most other religious groups did not have to consider when transitioning to an online service format. In addition to this, services at Congregation at B’nai Israel feature a strong focus on cooperative, communal prayer, and leading that prayer over the Internet is much more difficult than in-person. Normally, attendees would sing all together, creating lots of energy, but being on Zoom or a live-streamed service makes that kind of connection impossible. Services can feel inauthentic as religious experiences and more like chores, since many people are doing their jobs over Zoom, sitting in the same place in their home and at the same computer they work from. And that’s not even to mention the ways Zoom shortens people’s attention spans, making it far more difficult to sit down and concentrate on prayer.

To adapt to these challenges created by the pandemic, Congregation B’nai Israel and its leaders have looked to the larger Jewish community and authority to guide their decisions on how to continue practicing their religion and reaching all members of their community at a time when they cannot be together. While it was unconventional and potentially against Jewish law to move services online, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the larger organization the Congregation is part of, was able to find solid rationale for bending those restrictions in order to keep people connected to their Jewish communities.

For their part, Congregation B’nai Israel has made some adjustments to their services in order to make them more Zoom-friendly. For one thing, they have made services shorter, in order to combat that reduced attention span of service attendees. Their Shabbat morning services have shifted to become more focused on conversation and study of different texts, with a few prayers in the beginning and end of the service. The attendees seem to really enjoy this, but it’s unclear whether the new format will continue once the pandemic is over.

Congregation B’nai Israel also monitors and responds to the pandemic with their personal COVID-19 task force, which includes a few infectious disease experts as well as the synagogue president. They work together to come up with recommendations on what will be safe for the community to do as far as in-person gathering, and whatever they say is carried out. At the moment, they have considered it safe to provide a few, heavily limited opportunities for in-person worship, one of which was Noah Barondes’s bar mitzvah. These gatherings are restricted to a specific size, and social distancing measures and masks are enforced at all times.

In addition to these structural adaptations to the pandemic, Rabbi Justin David adapted the contents of his service too. He infused Barondes’s bar mitzvah with themes of hope and resilience, referencing the various tragedies of humanity in the Hebrew Bible and reminding the congregants that nevertheless, humanity persevered. This communal acknowledgement of suffering combined with the assurance that the community will survive is a reminder that religion is more than its rituals and practice: it’s a source of collective, spiritual strength in times of adversity. In a way, CBI’s services themselves act as a natural adaptation to the pandemic by providing a response to coronavirus anxieties.

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