Prayer in the Virtual Space: Now What?

June 10, 2020Rabbi Melissa Stollman

Since the shelter-in-place orders began in March, religious institutions scrambled to move their programs and worship to a virtual space. While some congregations around the country already took advantage of streaming services to offer a hybrid worship of face-to-face and online prayer, most did not. This presented quite a few challenges.

The obvious hurdle concerned the technical aspects: what virtual platform to use, what audio/visual equipment to purchase, and so on. But the more difficult task involved how to create a spiritual communal worship experience while everyone remained separated and isolated, from one another and the sacred worship space.

As we moved to the virtual space, the role of the clergy also changed. While our overarching role is still to engage the community, provide pastoral care, and teach tradition, history, and values, the way we do so has shifted, without any time to prepare.

Here in Parkland, FL, where I live, we are no strangers to disruption, even when surrounded by crisis and trauma. We may have been more prepared to bear the emotional weight of this new reality – but not the physical nuances of running our business from home.

Clergy, trained in leading worship and teaching about faith, had to quickly become tech savvy, managing different platforms and equipment. Acquiring an entire new language, based in technology, also needs to be learned. From Shabbat services, to “Zoom” mitzvahs, to online funerals, our work looks very different than before.

I have always believed that a community can be created in a virtual setting. Just look at Facebook, with its millions of groups that segment us based on our interests! These are some of the most engaging online forums that exist.

Now, with the increased use of videoconferencing technology, reunions of all types occur across the world, with the realization that everyone is only one click away. I watch clergy lead Facebook Live sessions filled with study, prayer, and music that not only engage people in the moment but stay online for others to watch later. If you miss worship in our time zone, you can click on a California synagogue’s website and catch it live a little bit later.

These are the most positive changes that have happened since this pandemic began, and I hope they will not disappear in the future.

Now, as restrictions begin to lift, we are faced once again with how to conduct our worship in meaningful ways. Just because our synagogues can be open does not necessarily mean that they should be. In-person worship often attracts an older population, which may be more vulnerable during this time. No one would want to put anyone at risk for the sake of prayer.

The concept of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is an important principle in Jewish law, stating that the preservation of a human life is the greatest commandment one can follow, above all others – including worshipping together physically to create a minyan (prayer quorum of 10 people). Under this guiding principle, online prayer with a minimum of 10 people will suffice for worship.

It is my prayer that we stay as healthy as possible, minimize risks when we can, and continue to engage with each other in meaningful ways, even if this means using online platforms a bit longer. While these virtual experiences cannot fully replicate an in-person gathering, they do have the opportunity to keep us engaged and connected during a very isolating time.

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