These days, Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde rotates leading services at Oseh Shalom in Laurel with co-leader and husband Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde and the synagogue’s longtime cantor, Charlie Bernhardt, via Zoom.
While she’s not a fan of the audio lag on the conferencing platform — the energy of voices raised together in song is what she misses most about in-person services — she does enjoy connecting with nature while leading prayers from her backyard. “The neighbors haven’t said anything yet,” she joked during a phone interview.
Another benefit the Reconstructionist congregation is experiencing with the shift to the virtual plane — a surge in attendance — is one congregations across the country are observing.
“This is a time of uncertainty, whether because of the pandemic or the related economic meltdown. People are reaching out for stability,” Rabbi Eliezer Schnall, a professor of clinical psychology at Yeshiva University who researches the relationship between mental health and religion, told JTA. “There’s the fact that people are nervous, the fact that people are scared and they hunger for something like religion to grasp onto … There’s the social element that people are lonely, there’s the technological component that this is something we can do today in ways that are easier than ever before.”
Oseh Shalom’s membership is in the low 200s, according to Religious Vice President John Riehl. Before the stay-at-home order, about 30 people came to Friday-night services and anywhere from three to 15 congregants on Shabbat morning. Now, “we’re getting more people coming to Shabbat evening and morning services [via Zoom],” he said.
They’ve added weekday morning and afternoon services as well. “We never would have gotten that in the synagogue, because it would involve travel,” he said.
Riehl contrasted participating in a conference on Zoom with the “one-way” experience of watching a livestream of services, something Oseh Shalom offered before the pandemic, but which drew only a handful of views outside of holidays. “People really like being able to see each other before and after services like you would do when you’re in a sanctuary after services are over,” he said.
The synagogue offers a variety of programs via Zoom in addition to services: Coffee and Conversation, meditation, a knitting class and a Rosh Chodesh group, to name a few. And nearly 100 congregants attended a Zoom meeting Sunday night about Cantor Bernhardt’s upcoming (non-COVID related) retirement in November.
Despite the occasional technical difficulties, “we’ve gotten really positive feedback,” said Riehl. “There were some rough spots in the beginning when I’d try to get creative with the unmuting and there was a couple in an argument over the pronunciation of a Yiddish name,” he said, laughing. “Don’t unmute people as much during services — that was good feedback.”
The congregation also experienced two “Zoom bombings” in the past month. On March 27, an intruder started expressing anti-Semitic speech during services, prompting the administrators to close the meeting and restart it with security measures in place. A different person interrupted on the first day of Passover while Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde was leading services.
“It is a symptom of the imbalance in our culture and in our world that people are expressing such inappropriate behavior,” she said. “It really is heartbreaking to see those in such pain looking to make such a mess in other people’s lives.”
The synagogue’s events list is now password-protected, among other new security measures. Virtual visitors interested in participating in Oseh Shalom services for the first time need to reach out via the website. “When someone’s looking for an easy target, we won’t be one of them,” said Jacobs-Velde.
“The values that have needed to become more explicit in light of the Zoom bombing are how we balance our always deep commitment of welcoming and including all those who want to connect to Judaism, spirituality and Jewish community, regardless of background, with the safety of the community.”