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  • Writer's pictureLeann Shamash

Zoom Room Update: A Bit of Meandering, Finding a Home

This week we begin the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim. This year we have read, sometimes in the synagogue and sometimes from a Tanach about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, their long journey through the desert, with a thousand travails, complaints and sometimes violent transitions to the land they were promised. We are beginning the final book of the torah, heading through the period of mourning which leads to Tisha B'Av. Every day brings us closer to the upcoming High Holidays, which are less than two months away.

It feels like years ago that Massachusetts, the USA and the world went into lockdown. At this point, hundreds of miserable headlines later, it's hard to even picture what life was like before this pandemic began. Those days when we met without anxiety, ate together, socialized freely without a second thought seem like years ago. It feels like a dream how cavalierly we entered rooms together, laughed together and shared food. Things we took for granted for our entire lives live now in our memories, with the hope that someday we will return to them.

When the pandemic began I was saying kaddish for my mother at the Sephardic minyan in town and I took for granted my spot in the room. For weeks after the lockdown began, like the Jews wandering in the desert, I electronically gravitated from spot to spot to find a minyan; in fact a number of my posts here are my adventures in saying kaddish in Chicago and Kansas City. I am embarrassed to admit that when I first saw someone doing the morning service in front of the Golden Gate Bridge I really thought that they were at the bridge! I have learned a lot about Zoom since. I suspect you have as well.

For almost four months now I have been a part of a local Zoom minyan to say kaddish. For the most part we are the same group each and every day, just as a local in person minyan would be. The synagogue's standards are that as a virtual minyan there are prayers that we cannot do under Jewish law so we do not recite prayers that require an in-person minyan such as the Bar'chu and the Kedusha. More importantly, we do not read the torah on Shabbat, Mondays or Thursdays or other occasions requiring torah reading.

We are a group of between twelve and eighteen most mornings. We inhabit our own Zoom boxes. The early morning (Shacharit) service is led by lay people and instead of Torah reading, community members teach about the Torah portion. Each morning the rabbi inserts the same directions for praying, like urging us to take our time if we have not yet finished the silent Amida. And each morning, just before we recite the mourners kaddish at the end of the service, he asks each of us to unmute ourselves from our Zoom boxes and say the names of the people for whom we say kaddish. Each morning we do so and over time I learned the names of husbands, fathers, cousins and mothers. I itched to know more though. Each morning we sit together and I wanted so much to know that people with whom I am sitting and for whom they are devoting themselves each morning to say kaddish for. Every morning I wanted to interrupt the service and ask everyone to tell me about these people.

Even though I knew that I might be overstepping my boundaries in a Zoom room, I ventured a note to the rabbi last week and asked him if people might say something about the person for whom they say kaddish. I don't think that I would have had the same courage to ask this in person but I am much braver on Zoom than I would be in real time, so I took the chance.

After all, there are perhaps unwritten rules that govern morning minyan? It is usually just a place to quickly say the morning prayers and rush away? Would inserting a personal question to participants upset the apple cart? Would people feel uncomfortable with this question and pre-suppose that a morning minyan is not a place to share with each other, but to just pray and leave? Would people feel uncomfortable and feel that this violates their personal space?

That first day the rabbi mentioned my request and the next day in addition to asking the names of the deceased, he asked us for their names and politely asked if we would like to add something about them. I waited to see what would happen. At first with some shyness and then with a greater comfort level, brief stories were shared. Faces were animated and there was laughter in the room. I learned from the woman who says kaddish for her husband each morning that he made good chicken soup, that he planned his daughter's wedding and he spoke Yiddish to his late mother-in-law. I saw photos of him and most touching, I learned from his daughter that she feels that the experience of saying kaddish for her father brings her full circle because she remembers clearly when he had recited kaddish for his mother.

I learned that one man in the room has twin boys. He shyly told us a story about his father and for the first time I saw him smile. He told the group how much saying kaddish in this group has meant to him. Other members of our tiny group have also shared small vignettes about their parents, their cousins, their mothers. As for me, I have shared just a few things about my mother; that she loved to exercise with Jack LaLane, that she made good soup and loved to play Mah-Jong. I hope that what I have said about my mother helped others to

understand why I am in that room each day and honors my mother's memory.

Last week, for the first time, I felt that our Zoom room went from being a virtual space to say kaddish, to be a community. In an in-person community, in our own synagogues, we would most likely all know one another, perhaps for years and we would already have some context to who is in the room with us. Saying kaddish for my father in such a venue, I know that morning minyans were fast affairs; recite the prayers, say kaddish and pack up to get to work. I know that I am not a member of the synagogue where I am saying kaddish and now I understand that some of the others are also not members. We are a small group of people who have found this same space to participate in a sacred responsibility. We share that space and that Zoom community with others who have been members of this synagogue for years and are so generous in allowing us to share their space every morning.

It's a week since I made this small request and a week since I learned more about people in the room. I have to admit that the practice does not happen every day and perhaps last week will be an exception to the rule instead of the norm and perhaps that is as it should be. People shouldn't feel obligated to speak or pressured in any way because they happen to be at this virtual minyan for the obligation of praying each morning. But that small opening in the door, in that room for those few days, was enough to let some light into the room and it was enough to change that room for me for the better. Maybe I am in that room as an obligation, as a way to honor my mother's memory and participate in the obligation of saying kaddish, but I see the potential of that room as so much more. The room was alive and electric when people's stories become part of background. Perhaps even the prayer is enhanced for the knowledge of the others who are not in the room with us, but who we recall each morning.

I am not sure what the lesson is here. Were these brief exchanges a lesson in how to build community in a Zoom room during a pandemic? Maybe, maybe not. Was it just a reflection of my own personal preferences in trying to know people better during a time where new contacts are limited? Is a room where people gather for a minyan merely a place where they fulfill their obligation to say kaddish and what part, if any, does a personal connection play a part in that room? Also, a question without an answer here, in an age when Zoom rooms are the "public square" or synagogue chapel, what actions can we take to make that room a more personal experience for those who are a part of it? Whether for a prayer or a meeting or a classroom, Zoom communication can be very awkward. What are the things that we can do to make this new public forum more personal, more nurturing and less awkward?

When I enter this Zoom minyan now on any given morning and open the electronic door to the room, I feel that I know my fellow participants better. Now I am not only in that room to honor my mother's memory, but also to be there in that room for X's mother, and Y's father and Z's husband. We are all in this together. For 40 minutes each morning we share virtual space together. I'd like to think that the stories which have been added to the discordant mix of voices each reciting an ancient declaration of faith and glorification have lifted us up a bit higher as a community. I'll look forward to hearing more because as much as prayer makes us a community, people and their stories are the threads that bind us together and keep us coming back for more.


As always, I would love to hear more about your experiences on Zoom or at synagogue these days. Feel free to email me or add your experience in the comment section below. It's a new world out there, a virtual Zoom Boom Town and your thoughts make a difference!

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