It was a bright, hot summer morning. The cantor was singing the “Mi Kamocha” prayer in her ethereal voice. But I didn’t know that’s what she was singing. I had lost my place in the siddur. When I found the right page and warbled the words “nora tehillot,” it wasn’t even discernible as Hebrew. I sounded like a wounded goose.My ineptitude wasn’t bothering anyone but me, though, because this happened last June, at the height of the pandemic, and I was muted, attending Shabbat services on Zoom.It soon became one of the most important and meaningful rituals of my week. Before COVID-19, I’d always felt like a religious outsider, too ashamed of my beginner’s ignorance to go to synagogue. Zoom services were, for me, the pandemic’s great silver lining. They helped me take part in shul for the first time in my life.I was raised secular, by a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother. My paternal grandmother, who helped take care of me, was a communist who disapproved of religion. She made brisket and matzo ball soup, and she used the word tuchus. That was about the extent of her Judaism. I grew up in the South; my exposure to Jewish culture and religion was otherwise pretty limited. Occasionally, my family went to Passover Seders at friends’ houses. Every year, we lit Hannukah candles. My sweet, Midwestern anthropologist mother recited blessings from a printout that she’d picked up at the local Reform temple. She wanted my brother and me to have some sense of our heritage.My grandmother didn’t. To her, Judaism was dangerous. During her hardscrabble Pennsylvania childhood, other kids called her Christ killer and hurled rocks. Her husband, my grandfather, fought in the 66th Infantry Regiment in WWII. He helped liberate the Gunskirchen Lager concentration camp. Upon returning home, he changed our surname from Feinberg to Graedon. Assimilation, my grandparents believed, helped ensure safety.But as I got older, my interest in Judaism grew. What was this cultural inheritance that I’d been protected from? In college, I became a religious studies major, thinking that if I read Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, and Heschel, I’d feel more Jewish. It didn’t hurt. But I wasn’t going to Shabbat dinners or Hillel, and unless someone invited me to synagogue during High Holidays, I also almost never went to services. I felt intimidated. I didn’t read Hebrew. I didn’t know the liturgy or prayers. I’d embarrass myself, I worried, or, worse, cause offense. On the rare occasions that I worked up the nerve to go to shul, I met with a friendly but slightly bemused response—Who are you?—that triggered my imposter syndrome. All I wanted was to belong, and I didn’t, at all.Finally, though, I reached a time in my life when finding a Jewish religious community felt vital. In my 30s, I started thinking about having kids, and I realized that I’d want to raise them Jewish.In 2019, I found an intro to Judaism class that met each Sunday at a synagogue near my Brooklyn home. It started just after Rosh Hashanah and would run until Passover. We read essays about Jewish life and culture, discussed the weekly parsha, and took turns giving a d’var Torah. We also shared food, and I learned about brachot—that there are blessings not just for bread and wine but also doughnuts, crudité, and Chex. Slowly, I started feeling less clueless. One Saturday, we even attended services at a shul that co-sponsored our class. Beforehand, I was excited. I know what I’m doing now, I thought. This might be transcendent, I thought.It was a Conservative egalitarian synagogue. Right away, I noticed that the women from our intro class were the only ones not wearing skirts. I felt awkward in my sweater and black pants, and I felt exposed: We were also the only ones not in tallitot. I borrowed a kippah from the bowl at the door, pinning it on so inexpertly that within seconds, it fell off. With some relief, I found a seat in a pew beside a friend from class. But my relief was short-lived. The siddurs weren’t transliterated. I couldn’t even pretend to follow along. Instead, I hummed, murmuring an occasional “amen” or “Adonai.” Suddenly, we stood. Why? Then, with equal mystery, we sat again. I still don’t know the prayers or liturgy, I realized. I didn’t know anything. I was a fraud. I felt cold and had to pee. Then I recognized someone, the friend of an Orthodox ex, and knew my incompetence would get back to him. My shame was complete. I didn’t go up for an aliyah. Afraid I’d kiss the Torah wrong, I refrained. I felt no transcendent presence, no transformation. I was disappointed. After I’d finally gotten up the courage to attend services, it had been awkward and hard. I still didn’t belong. It almost didn’t feel worth it to carry on.But I kept going to intro class and learning what I could. I tried not to abandon all hope that one day, I might feel less alienated.Then the pandemic struck. For a few weeks, we all scrambled to get our bearings. Soon, it was almost Passover. Despite my discomfort with services, they felt more urgent than ever, especially in such a plagued year. But how could I go to synagogue? Brooklyn was in lockdown.That’s when I learned about Zoom services. At first, I was skeptical about virtual davening. But when I thought about it, I realized that doing Shabbat services by Zoom might have distinct advantages. They’d be more accessible emotionally: My neurotic self-consciousness wouldn’t get in my way. I could essentially audit shul, faking it, messing up, undetected, while learning what to do and say. It seemed worth a try. I found a shul I liked and did Passover services online.I started attending most Saturdays. When I got lost, stumbled over words, or sang off-key, I didn’t worry much. And when I relaxed, I was able to learn the prayers and liturgy more easily. It empowered me to start studying Hebrew. The more I learned, the more freely I could participate.Online Shabbat also felt surprisingly intimate. Because we were in our own homes, we saw one another’s books, art, kids’ toys, pets. We saw kiddush cups, shofars, and lulavs. Congregants still gave d’vars. They still shared messages of sorrow and gratitude. I wanted to meet them in person, of course. But weird as it seemed, I realized that I felt more comfortable not being physically present with them, at least initially.I started to see that Zoom was helping others as well. When members of our shul were recovering from surgery, or hooked up to oxygen, or out of town caring for family, they could be with us, too. And it seemed to facilitate participation in subtler ways. Introverts who might feel shy sharing messages aloud in shul seemed to feel no such shyness in text; our chat box was always full.Last Rosh Hashanah, I was especially grateful for the chat. A friend and I had just eaten Shabbat dinner on my building’s stoop. It was a beautiful night, warm and clear. Then she’d gone home, and I’d logged on to services. Suddenly, I saw a flood of messages: “RBG just died.” “Oh my God.” “I can’t believe she’s gone.” “May her memory be a blessing.” “May it be a revolution.” “She’s a tzaddik. Only the most righteous die on Rosh Hashanah.” All across the screen, I saw tears, muted people silently rocking back and forth. As I sat stunned, listening to the rabbi acknowledge our collective sadness and shock, I sobbed, too. I felt gratitude, for the work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for the rabbi, for this new community, helping me feel my fear and grief. I even felt grateful for Zoom. Maybe, I thought, this is easier to bear because we can cry together so easily. We’d all found out at once. We were in our homes. We could be vulnerable. We could see one another’s faces. To my surprise, I felt deep love for this group of people I’d only met onscreen.This spring and summer, as weddings and b’nai mitzvah delayed by COVID-19 resumed, the shul’s aufruf ceremonies and recited Torah portions brought me true joy. This is my shul now, I realized.I plan to start attending in person once that’s safe to do. But it was the pandemic, and Zoom, that made it possible. Social distance, in the end, will have enabled my presence in synagogue.