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This Year’s High Holidays Saw a Jewish World Shuttered. But for Some, It Only Just Opened.

The pandemic forced Reform and Conservative synagogues to shift to livestreaming, but for some Jews, the move proved more of a blessing than a curse

Marie-Rose Sheinerman
October 16, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

Jeri Friedman hasn’t set foot in New York City since 1975, but two years ago, the longtime resident of Port St. Lucie, Florida, became a member at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue.

In 2010, a friend of hers shared a few synagogues offering livestreams of Rosh Hashanah services and Friedman spotted Central on the list. “I was like, ‘Ah, New York! I was born in Brooklyn. This would be like going home.’” Since getting there—virtually—she’s never left.

All the odds in the world said Friedman would never belong to a shul. When we connected over 2020’s quintessential platform, Zoom, the first thing she said felt like a disclosure: “I’m disabled. I’ve been disabled for 31 years.” The 66-year-old former health care worker has myalgic encephalomyelitis—a disease she developed from professional exposure to formaldehyde—and another chronic illness, both of which have combined in recent years to make it nearly impossible for her to go outside. In March, when people began to complain about a then-two-week-old shelter-in-place, all she could do was laugh. “I said, ‘You know what? Welcome to my world! I’ve been in social isolation, stuck in my house for more than three years.’” Friedman’s 95-year-old father, Irving, does her grocery shopping for her.

But her disability wasn’t the only thing keeping her from Jewish community: Her whole life seemed hellbent on proving organized religion just wasn’t for her. When her father, barely making ends meet at the time, wanted to enroll his daughter in Hebrew school, he asked their rabbi if he could pay the tuition in installments. “The rabbi said, ‘No, either you pay it all now or she doesn’t go.’ So, I never went,” Friedman said. “As young as I was—I was 5 or 6 years old—it really left a bad taste in my mouth.”

In Port St. Lucie, between her disappointment at a local synagogue’s response to an anti-Semitic incident and her discomfort with the Chabad’s treatment of her Catholic stepmom, nothing seemed to fit—and at 56 years old, as her disability began to dominate her life, she was about ready to give up on finding something that would. Then, that livestream happened.

“Jeri was willing to be a member even when all we could do for her were the livestreams, which she could have gotten for free,” said Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the senior rabbi at Central. The 2,600-family congregation in Midtown has been streaming Shabbat and holiday services live from their sanctuary for 12 years. “But once the pandemic happened, then suddenly, she could come to everything. She’s someone who felt trapped in her home and now she feels like her world has opened up.”

Central had been Friedman’s “spiritual home” for nearly a decade, but never before had the home offered her so much: a daily meditation group led by Buchdahl, coffee with clergy, Facebook Lives to chat with other members, and weekly classes, where she’s only now learning Hebrew—all from behind her screen.

Friedman’s story is certainly special, but as the pandemic popularized and normalized remote community, it became non-unique. During the High Holidays, Central and many other synagogues like it opened their seemingly closed doors to countless Jews who would not have otherwise attended services. Whether due to disabilities, old age, imposter syndrome, so-called “Jewish illiteracy,” or language barriers, many Jews each year are barred from or forgo in-person practice.

Now, as the service came live and in stereo to the comfort of these individuals’ homes, Buchdahl said Central’s typical couple thousand digital turnout grew exponentially, with hundreds of thousands tuning in to the Yom Kippur feed.

I came upon this story because my own mother, to my enormous surprise, was one of them.

In the early morning of Yom Kippur, my strategic hunger alleviating slumber was disturbed by my mother’s Jewish awakening.

In her 50 years of life, Kira Sheinerman has stepped foot in a synagogue on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar exactly once. It wasn’t her thing. She spent her first two decades behind the Iron Curtain, raised in a family where the baton of ritual got dropped somewhere between 1948’s hunt for “rootless cosmopolitans” and 1953’s trial of “Jewish killer-doctors.” Her Judaism was centered not on a shul but on her kitchen, where Jewish anekdoty (jokes) seemed to bounce off the silverware, rationed ingredients were saved for her grandmother’s incomparable strudel, and a tome of Sholem Aleichem on the bookshelf was a better mark of faith than a yarmulke could ever be.

So when she left Ukraine for the States in 1992, it never occurred to her to join a temple. Why would it have? She’d internalized a characteristically Soviet cynicism toward organized religion and saw her Judaism as deeply personal, domestic, even secret. Joining a shul would blow the cover, and for what? “It’s all in a language I can’t understand,” she said.

But this year was different. Buchdahl said she believes “the pandemic has sort of made people want to connect—rootedness in faith, questioning things.” For my mother, who fell ill with the virus mid-March, the hardships yet gratitude of the past months may very well have been a push factor toward the livestream, but what interested me more were the pull factors. After decades of profound discomfort with services, what made her find meaning in them now? What made her sit for hours, transfixed by the singing and prayer, eyes welling up with tears? And what made her declare the next day, to my amazement: “Maybe I should become a member.”

To these questions, I found the beginnings of answers in an unlikely source: the story of a woman from Santa Monica, California, who bears no resemblance to my mother at all.

Seventeen years ago, Paula Mazur became a founding member of Ikar, a nondenominational shul in Los Angeles. But though she’d attended the synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in person in the past, she felt “a real liberty in being alone,” going so far as to call this year’s High Holidays her most profound yet. “There was a total freedom that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before” in services, she explained. “I could be however I wanted to be. I could sit, stand, pace, dance.”

For Mazur, part of that freedom came from losing the slight sense of discomfort she previously felt when singing in shul, since she doesn’t speak or read Hebrew. “This year, I was completely unselfconscious about ‘Am I getting the words right?’ Because I’m not,” she said. “I was belting, howling, singing my heart out.”

According to Ikar’s CEO and co-founder Melissa Balaban, 40 families became members of Ikar in the 24 hours of Yom Kippur alone. For those 40, like for Jeri Friedman 10 years prior, a one-off free livestream opened a gate they may have not realized was there all along.

Balaban’s approach to planning virtual High Holiday services had a guiding mission: “lowering the barriers of entry.” The goal, she told me, was to reach “people who maybe don’t feel particularly ‘literate’ and are intimidated from coming into the room, people who are homebound or have disabilities.” With that goal of accessibility in mind, Ikar had to make a financial choice. Ultimately, like Central’s, their services were free.

Across the three viewing options (a registration-based Zoom link, their website, and Facebook), Balaban estimated around 10,000 households tuned in for Yom Kippur. “Part of the thinking of Facebook,” she said, “was we wanted people to be able to happen upon it.”

“For so many people, they left Jewish life or aren’t particularly interested in Jewish life because they haven’t found anything compelling or inspiring to them,” the synagogue’s co-founder explained. On her own Facebook page, Balaban witnessed her hope playing out as planned. “I would share the link and I would see random people in my life who I knew have nothing to do with Jewish life, all of a sudden, they’re watching.”

The digital, free services created unprecedented opportunities to connect people from around the world. According to Buchdahl, after the U.S. and Canada, the third-most-common country of residence for Central’s livestream viewers was Brazil. College junior Lucy Meigs, raised in Baltimore and living in St. Louis, watched a livestream from Needham, Massachusetts, at the shul where her roommate grew up. Nan Friedman, an Ikar founding member, touted the benefit she and her fellow Los Angeles congregants reaped this year from a conversation Rabbi Sharon Brous held with civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson, who’s based in Montgomery, Alabama, in place of a Yom Kippur sermon.

“An unexpected piece of this is a feeling of global community, a sense we were connected to people around the Jewish world,” Buchdahl said, adding that Central chose to lean into that feeling by inviting their Jerusalem-based intern to give the blessing for the State of Israel.

Still, some may worry that very ability to move freely from shul to shul, coast to coast—all from behind a screen—will prove to be a double-edged sword, particularly for smaller shuls with fewer resources. Buchdahl said she’s sensitive to the issue of what can happen to smaller communities when suddenly “anyone can go to any synagogue.”

But no matter how global in reach the services got, for Mazur, seeing her rabbi so directly, so up close on her screen, created above all a feeling of real intimacy. “There were no distractions whatsoever,” she said. “It was really interpersonal in a new way.”

Zina Valkovsky was born on the night of Simchat Torah in 1935 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. “My father always said that meant I’ll have a lucky, joyous life,” she told me in Russian. “I think that’s basically come true.”

This month, it was especially true. For the first time in years, Valkovsky and her husband could attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services—without leaving their Chicago home.

“We used to go to synagogue for the holidays with our son’s family, but then it became difficult. The language was difficult for us … everyone there were Americans, they only speak English, so it was a little difficult and we stopped going,” she said. Anshe Emet Synagogue, her son’s Conservative shul, may have had Cyrillic transliterated siddurim, but Valkovsky couldn’t help feeling nelovko there, like a fish out of water.

Now, all she had to do to attend was open an email link from her daughter-in-law. “We didn’t listen all day,” she admitted, “but we listened to the service where we could honor our parents—I forget what it’s called—and we listened to Kol Nidre.”

“We were listening and crying. The cantor was incredible, the prayer itself … it was soul-touching,” she said. “Especially because my father was religious … he celebrated the holidays, he made us a chuppah when we got married. My dad would sing this prayer, and I was remembering him, and I was crying.”

By the time she was born, Valkovsky’s father, Israel Noah Pesachov, was nearly 60. He was religious—yes, even in the Soviet Union, even in Central Asia during the evacuation, even in Moscow after the war. He would sing these prayers at home. He had a seat at the synagogue that was his. He brought her there once for Simchat Torah. He would have brought her more, but he was afraid. Her stepmom wasn’t religious though and schools taught her there is no God, so observance never stuck.

“But since childhood, my soul stayed a Jewish soul,” she said.

I thought back to Jeri Friedman. What does it mean to live with a Jewish soul but without a Jewish community or sanctuary to call home? What does it mean when your Jewish world is confined to you and your family—and what does it mean when, in a flash, all of that can change?

For Friedman, it means finding gratitude not in spite of a global pandemic, but almost because of it.

“When I first was a livestreamer, a number of years ago, I used to say, ‘You know, I wish you would have more stuff for livestreamers, not just services,’” she explained. “As a retired medical professional, I never wanted anything to happen due to a pandemic, of all things, but that’s exactly what this caused. Zoom opened a whole new world to me.”

More than 70 years after her father first took her to Simchat Torah services in Moscow, the pandemic enabled Valkovsky to come back to them, on the eve of her 85th birthday. And more than 60 years after Friedman left her New York City childhood home, a piece of her soul now lives in a sanctuary on 55th Street and Lexington Avenue, a building she’s never been inside.

“It really is like being home. It’s New York again. It’s kind of funny, I wound up back where I started.”

Marie-Rose Sheinerman is a fall journalism fellow at Tablet and a history concentrator at Princeton University on a year off as a rising junior.