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How the Zoom Minyan Brought Me Closer to Judaism

I never imagined I’d attend services every morning. But now I’m hooked.

by
Ivy Eisenberg
January 19, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

It is a cold winter morning. I open the blinds of the east window in my messy home office and rush to log in, seconds before my synagogue’s 8 a.m. daily Zoom prayer service. I wear my cozy, fuzzy socks, my tallit with its frayed turquoise silk panels, and a crocheted kippah pinned to my wet hair.

I’ve been saying Kaddish every day since early May for my dad, and since October for my mom. Neither passed away from COVID-19; both were 93 and in failing health, but I was in utter shock when each died. I never thought my parents would ever die, silly as that sounds, let alone both of them within five months of each other.

I joined my synagogue’s daily morning minyan right after we buried my dad. Our Reconstructionist synagogue is a blend of tradition and modernism. We wait for a minyan of 10 Jewish adults to be present before mourners recite Kaddish, but all adult Jews—women, men, and nonbinary individuals—count in the minyan. And for us, “to be present” during the pandemic means that you are logged in to Zoom.

I had never attended a daily morning minyan before, and certainly never planned on making this a regular thing. But after the obligatory seven days of shiva ended, I kept returning, not ready to give up the daily boost of care and comfort I was receiving from the davening crew.

While many people find virtual gatherings off-putting, pale imitations of in-person meetings, I found—to my surprise—that being on Zoom actually made it easier for me to connect. The pandemic Zoom brought me to a daily minyan, and the minyan brought me deeper into Judaism.

According to Jewish Ashkenazi custom, one says Kaddish for a parent for 11 months. If I were following the customs my parents observed for my grandparents, I would sit shiva for seven days, resume my daily activities, and say Kaddish when I went to shul on the High Holidays. I grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Far Rockaway, Queens. We celebrated major holidays and marked life-cycle events with Jewish traditions and foods, but we were mostly a secular American family. I took being Jewish for granted—everyone in Far Rockaway was either Jewish or Catholic—and while I dropped out of Hebrew school, rebelling against my goody-goody sisters, I romanticized the exotic world of Judaism. I was secretly jealous of the kids who went to the Conservative shul around the corner from me; everyone in my class went there.

Following a rebellious childhood and disaffected adolescence, I dipped my toe into synagogue life after my husband and I got married. My husband was not Jewish at the time (he converted 20 years after we were married), yet we knew we wanted to have a Jewish household and raise our kids as Jews, so we joined the Village Temple, the Reform shul in Greenwich Village. We attended Friday night services, which were led mostly in English. When we moved up to Westchester with our first baby, in 1993, we wandered in and out of a few shuls for two years and then, prior to my second son’s birth, went shul shopping. We were seeking a place where the High Holidays weren’t Project Runway and where people were down to earth, liberal and social action focused. Everyone, including the staff at a different shul, steered us to Bet Am Shalom, the Reconstructionist synagogue in White Plains, New York.

Even after joining Bet Am Shalom, however, I remained on the periphery of synagogue world—we took our little kids to Friday night services and occasionally attended Saturday mornings. Though we loved the shul, we had explicitly moved into a diverse neighborhood because I wanted to make sure that my kids engaged with families and activities from various backgrounds. After eight years of being on the sidelines, I got involved: I became head of the program committee, chief organizer of desserts for the women’s Seder, class mom. I was even synagogue president for two years. I consistently attended Shabbat, sang in our choir, attended shivas, presented several Torah sermons (divrei Torah). This was a place where the High Holidays did not feel like a fashion show—we gathered outside in a tent and wore sneakers or old shoes when it was muddy. I discovered that I enjoyed participating in the community more than being an observer. About Bet Am Shalom, my sister remarked that “It’s like a synagogue of Ivys.” I took her words to mean casually disheveled, liberal-yet-serious-about-Judaism, and haimish, a Yiddish word that doesn’t have a satisfactory English equivalent.

And yet, I’d always been what a doyenne of the congregation called “a singalong Jew”: I sat toward the back of the sanctuary during services, hummed along quietly, and chanted aloud the few transliterated verses I knew. I recognized a few Hebrew letters and words from before I dropped out of Hebrew school as a child, but really, I was just mumbling along and pretending I knew what was going on. When my older son began his bar mitzvah studies, I joined the adult b’nai mitzvah class, becoming a bat mitzvah at 50. I could now read three lines of Torah and a few blessings that I had spent hundreds of hours mastering. I bought a new tallit at tallit.com, with pretty turquoise and purple silk panels. My parents came up for my bat mitzvah. Our 22-person b’nai mitzvah class hosted a festive kiddush. I made three huge trays of kugel. Still, I continued to sit in the rear seats during services, stumbling through the unbroken Hebrew sections of the prayer book, or just daydreaming through those sections.

The daily morning minyan is a hardcore davener’s minyan, not a beginner’s service—as I learned when I began attending last spring to say Kaddish. I was consistently running behind the hummina, hummina, hummina of the group. It was humiliating. While I was on mute for most of it, I was visible on screen, flipping pages, standing at the wrong time, sitting at the wrong time, looking up to see what everyone else was doing, as I struggled to read the Hebrew, the English, and the transliteration, my attention often drifting to the poems and the interesting commentaries sprinkled throughout the prayer book. Everyone else seemed to be, well, praying. I was editing the prayer book poems in my head, falling behind, then catching up and falling behind again.

It wasn’t just my lack of Hebrew that threw me. It was that people were there for me. Yes, they were there for themselves as well, but they were making a minyan for the mourners. All these years, I drew strength and joy by being there for others. I never wanted to call attention to myself. I never wanted to be vulnerable. I hated to ask for “help.” Was this fierce independence the root of my inability to pray?

We’re a diverse group: Our rabbi and cantor are usually there, together with other congregants—including the daughter of my dad’s business partner, also a rabbi, who coincidentally came “north” to Westchester and landed in the same shul as I did—and eight to 10 others from different backgrounds, some Orthodox, some Conservative, some previously unaffiliated, and some converts. We are tossed together in Hollywood Squares arrangement at this particular time and place in history, some saying Kaddish for loved ones, some to support others, some seizing the opportunity to attend a daily morning service, which had not existed at our synagogue at all prior to April 2020.

This intimate group of daveners was giving me a daily hug. I could have stopped after seven days, the shiva period, or after 30 days the “shloshim” period—and if I’d been attending in person, I probably would have stopped, because I would have been obsessed about getting to work on time and filling every crevice of free time with activity. But Zoom provided the perfect balance of distance and intimacy for this half-introvert, and each day I felt more and more of a connection. I was face-to-face with a small group of people I knew, but I was nestled in my own space, flanked by my books to the right and back, my file cabinets, my cluttered bulletin board in front, the space heater by my feet, and the east window to my left. “Group” prayer was both group prayer and individual prayer. We had a minute or two after the service to share any personal “good news,” but this was voluntary, so I was not pressured to chitchat. The COVID-19 lockdown gave me the gift of time, and opportunity to slow down, to reflect on life and death, and pray for peace, health, safety.

And while the pandemic allowed me the time, Zoom made attending minyan even simpler and more convenient: I went from morning services to work by pivoting my office chair between the two computers on my desk. Where else did I need to be? I clung to the daily practice.

About two-thirds of the regulars took turns leading the daily service. Every day, the leaders gave a short d’var Torah, which allowed us mourners to say an extra Kaddish. I couldn’t lead. Eventually, though, we non-leaders were invited to give a short d’var Torah, so I volunteered. I spoke one morning about how whites were responding to the Black Lives Matter movement, winding it around a verse from Pirkei Avot. Another morning, I spoke about Tisha B’Av and destruction. Leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about Psalm 27, which is sung every day during the month of Elul.

My mom, who was frail and increasingly demented after my dad died, became very ill in September. Now, I was saying Kaddish and Refuah Sh’lemah, the prayer for healing. On Yom Kippur, instead of attending Zoom services, I sat in my mom’s hospital room for the last time. My mom took her last breath on the morning of Erev Sukkot. Now I was saying Kaddish for both parents as we came to the end of Deuteronomy and began Genesis again.

This was no typical crisp, autumn “Sweet New Year” for me. I was in pain. I was vulnerable, and I needed the support of my fellow daveners even more. Zooming from home, day in and day out, always in the same spot, in my office at 8 a.m., looking through the open blinds to the east, I watched the seasons change. As I said Kaddish, I would gaze at my parents’ picture on my corkboard, flanked by the matching set of laminated yahrzeit date posters from the funeral home. The sun was high in the sky earlier on, even higher when we set the clocks ahead. It was like a time lapse picture, with a subtle shift each morning. Each day some small change happened. That change for me was my deepening love for Judaism itself.

Each day, listening to a snippet of Torah commentary, I was reminded that the major characters were riddled with jealousy, trickery, and connivance. If it wasn’t Cain murdering his brother Abel, it was Abraham, passing off his wife as his sister, or Sarah, complaining to God about Abraham’s impotence, or Jacob, in cahoots with his mom to steal Esau’s birthright, or Esau plotting to kill Jacob, or Joseph’s brothers tossing him into a pit and selling him into slavery. These were challenges of human beings as they wrestled with angels, with their families, their enemies, and themselves. I wasn’t the only troubled child and certainly not the only one to experience pain.

We unmute to say Mourner’s Kaddish. Due to Zoom’s audio lag, our communal prayer is more cacophony than chorus. We celebrate that cacophony. We are individuals and part of a community at the same time—a cacophony of Kaddish, and a tapestry of beautiful, caring faces staring at each other on the screen.

Since winter began, there has been an uptick in the death of congregants and family members. Some new mourners are joining us for the shiva period. Some may choose to continue. Some may drift away. We say Kaddish more slowly when the new people join. The leader calls out the page numbers. A newcomer joined last week and referred to herself as “impostor.” Not an impostor, I thought. She was a “singalong Jew” like I was.

By the time the official 11 months of mourning for my mom is over, I will have made a complete trip through the year and then some. It will be September. I may be traveling for work again. Our synagogue building is likely to reopen. I will mark those 11 months of mourning for my mom in some way, but I do not think I will stop attending the daily minyan if it continues on Zoom. Am I the only one who does not want a lockdown to end? Am I like the ancient Israelites enslaved in Egypt, afraid to be cut loose?

But today is today. I do not know what the upcoming year will bring. I now flip to the correct pages automatically, able to follow the service more easily. I still don’t know what I am saying most of the time. I take a different section to “practice” each day. But now, I am comfortable with not knowing. Can I pray without knowing exactly the words I am saying? I can. I am. Sometimes life is about doing but not knowing. That is called faith.

Ivy Eisenberg is a writer, storyteller, and information technology consultant.

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