Unique Gatherings Help a Rabbi and Community Stay Afloat

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People meet for a prayer gathering with Rabbi Mark Novak. Photo Courtesy.

Faces begin to fill in on the computer screens as around 20 people enter a Zoom session, signaling that it’s almost 6 p.m. They remain muted as the congregation’s rabbi, Mark Novak, begins to speak and lead them in song, each singing along silently with the rest of the group.

The group, a subset of the “Zoomagogue” Minyan Oneg Shabbat (MOSh), has held these meetings nearly every weekday since Oct. 8 as they come together to hold each other up and provide a meaningful time to work through the struggles they face from the uneasy and anxious reality of the Jewish community.

“I have many friends and a lot of family that live in Israel … I recognized that I needed to do something for me for my community — that we needed to come together in some shape or form,” Novak said.

The meetings may only last 15 minutes and are fully virtual, but Novak said that they provide the perfect blend of time to accomplish everything that he wanted to provide to his congregants and made it possible for people to do so while staying equally interactive.

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“I knew it was going to be short — that 15 minutes was plenty of time to find music, liturgy and more that I would need to present something that was a safe space, as well as a space in which people were free to feel whatever they’re feeling and not to be lectured to know politics,” Novak said.

He added that there were benefits to doing a fully virtual setting in that it would allow for everyone to see each other and participate equally — and that because he’s an ordained Renewal rabbi and the whole congregation meets on Zoom for every other service, they were uniquely prepared to quickly put these gatherings together.

“My skillset, my ordination is through Jewish Renewal movement and with the skills I brought to my rabbinical work that I had before and I continue to use, I’m set up in a specifically a particularly unique way to create something like this,” Novak said.

Novak has a variety of graphical tools he uses to display the texts, song lyrics and other visual aids for the attending congregants to follow along, and he’s able to do all of it without screensharing; he said he doesn’t enjoy that as it takes away the faces of the other people, defeating most of the point of a unified gathering.

“I’m using an array of apps and hardware that allows me to do this; for instance, that way I can share text of a piece and insert a PIP, a picture within picture [next to the text on screen]. Then I can come back to here [the regular Zoom camera settings] on the peripheral gatherings,” Novak said.

That format and technology allow Novak to keep track of the days since the attacks, which he constantly displays next to him while speaking or singing.

Novak said that in the 2½ months since they began the meetings, they’ve had a core of 18-22 people show up to the prayer gatherings, which he estimated to be about 25% of his membership.

The group spends much of the services singing prayers for peace and reading texts that promote the peace of Israel and Ishmeal, which Novak says he intentionally doesn’t dig into. That leaves current-day politics out of the session and enables congregants to discern the story’s meaning on their own.

“I let that [story] lay for people however it is it falls on them. And [I let them use] whatever lens they are seeing this horrific situation, this very complex situation [through], which for the most part, there’s very little conversation around, but a lot of diatribe and a lot of black and white and this side, that side,” Novak said.

The approach to avoid conflict and politics has so far worked, with group members feeling as though they have a good place to work through their feelings and feel as though they aren’t alone.

“These people that you see, some of them have … never been in the same geographic location, and yet many of them have formed very intimate relationships outside of services and gatherings and teachings that they call each other. They care for each other,” Novak said.

The bonds formed and the aid the gatherings have given to the congregants has led to them showing their gratefulness to Novak, which he said is helpful in his drive and continual efforts to put the gatherings together.

“The kinds of responses I’ve gotten are [saying] thank you for creating this amazing, safe space. I don’t know what I would do without it. It is a saving grace — all those kinds of things that have just been tremendously supportive to me and a confirmation that it’s needed,” Novak said.

 

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