Cantor Rochelle Helzner of Tikvat Israel Congregation, in Rockville, speaks to Jay P. Goldman about her first month of livestreaming Shabbat Services. Goldman is editor of the Tikvat Israel Bulletin.
At first, what were your emotions chanting on Shabbat in a virtually deserted sanctuary?
Frankly, the first time I sang in front of livestream, I was terrified. It felt like I was on a TV show. I wondered what would happen if my voice didn’t hold up, if it was proper for me to take a drink, where to look so it didn’t appear on screen that I was looking into outer space. And the service had to start on time. No sailing into it.
What adjustments have you and the rabbi [Marc Israel] made in the physical setup?
Right now, our livestream involves a computer. Initially, it was put on the shulchan [table], but when the rabbi or I moved the table by swaying too much, drumming or placing other materials on it, the picture would shake on the screen. So the computer is now on a separate table. I try not to look at the computer screen but instead focus on the third row.
Have you experienced any moments of panic?
Once when I started a service, I glanced at the screen and noticed that it said “Signed Out.” I wondered whether we were broadcasting at all. Who could I ask? The rabbi, of course, was nowhere near. I decided to ask the invisible, possibly non-existent onlookers to wait while I asked the rabbi to go up to look at the screen. He told me we were broadcasting, so I continued the service. In hindsight, I don’t think it matters if we are broadcasting or not. I will continue to daven, if not for the congregation, then for me and Rabbi Israel.
Is there a strong element of self-consciousness?
It was enlightening to me how much having actual people in shul affects my davening. I take my cues from the congregation, sometimes making changes on the spot depending on the feelings I get from folks.
In livestream, I have none of that give and take. As you know, I like to vary melodies to keep the tefillot fresh, but it is hard to gauge whether the tunes are working and how much people are willing to go with me.
What feedback have you heard from congregants, and have you modified anything you do as a result?
After four weeks, I am finding it so much easier to walk onto the bimah and connect to my davening. I feel much more confident. I am giving myself permission to take a drink or take a breath. Rabbi Israel and I are still trying to fine tune the service, to make decisions about what to include and not include, how much to do out loud and to do individually, how much Torah, how long to make the service.
This format is different from being in front of a live congregation, for us and for our congregants. A congregant told me that there are distractions at home that make focus difficult. Someone told me that when we started to livestream, she was so happy to be able to put on a tallit again. Someone told me that they love davening with a cup of coffee. Many have told me how much they appreciate hearing my and the rabbi’s voices on Shabbat and how much they have been touched.
Any aha moments?
On Shavuot, while I was davening, I heard the echo in the sanctuary, which made my voice more resonant, but also filled me with sadness that the echo I was hearing was not the voices of the congregation. But maybe my voice singing back at me is to help me hear my own prayers and pass them on to you.
What preparation went into this experience for you?
On the Shabbatot before Tikvat Israel began the livestream, I would “visit” other congregations that were livestreaming to see what they were doing and how it might impact me. There were congregations that in my opinion were too showy, some in which the prayer leaders were uninspiring, some in which the technology that was used helped with engagement and some that left me with a sense of distancing.
Then there were the congregations in which I felt true holiness coming through the screen connecting and touching me. Those congregations were the ones I wanted to emulate.
I also recognized on those Shabbatot my need to connect with prayer leaders to join me in my davening. Doing so on my own was not fulfilling enough. Beautiful melodies and insightful divrei Torah greatly enhanced my Shabbat experience. Those Shabbatot convinced me that even though not ideal, livestream can foster a meaningful experience. They gave me insight into how to try to impart a sense of kedushah through a screen.
Reprinted with permission from the July-August 2020 issue of Tikvat Israel Bulletin.