Meeting virtually during the pandemic by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Editors’s note: Four people responded to a request sent out by The Reporter to leaders of Jewish community organizations about their experiences using virtual meeting places. This article is based on the answers of the four who responded. The Reporter staff invite other members of the community to write to us about their experiences – good or bad – with Zoom and other virtual online meeting places for a future article. The information can be sent to Treporter@aol.com with “virtual experiences” in the subject line. 

One person loves it. Another has mixed feelings. A third had never heard of the virtual programs before this began. The fourth notes how it has become essential to keep the community institutions running smoothly. All wrote about dealing with technological problems, although they also noted that practice makes the process smoother.

Lani Dunthorn, the president of Temple Concord Sisterhood is the most enthusiastic about virtual meetings. “I love it!!!!” she wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t have to get dressed up, don’t have to drive when it’s dark or in inclement weather, and don’t have to find a parking spot, etc. All I have to do is walk in to my home office, turn on the computer and sit back and enjoy.”

Although many people miss meeting in person, Dunthorn noted the advantages of using virtual means. “I don’t have to look at the back of people’s heads – I can see their faces and make their faces as large or small as I’d like,” she added. “I can also control how loudly or softly people are speaking, which is quite a relief to me. When we’re divided into small groups after a service, as we are on Friday nights at Temple Concord, we have an opportunity to speak with people we may not usually speak with.”

She also mentioned that those attending have had to learn some of the technological aspects of the programs and make certain everyone who wants the opportunity to speak can do so. “We’re all getting better at putting ourselves on mute, though we need a bit more practice in making sure that we aren’t talking over one another and making sure that the quieter ones among us have an opportunity to speak,” she concluded.

Shelley Hubal, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Binghamton, is less enthusiastic, but recognizes the need for virtual meetings. “I have mixed feelings about Zoom,” she wrote. “On one hand, Zoom has made meetings and events more accessible to people that live out of town, in an assisted living setting, can’t travel etc. However, it is harder to get feedback. Not everyone wants to speak up in a zoom meeting, for example.”

She also noted the challenges and the good points of using the new technology. “Zoom has features such as spotlighting and screen sharing, but learning to use these in the moment has its challenges,” she added. “I am always grateful that people are willing to spend their time attending an event or meeting. I want to be mindful that they are having a good experience. So, when there is a bad connection on a Zoom call or there are struggles to run the technology smoothly, I am frustrated. Given all this, I am satisfied that we have the Zoom technology. I think having a meeting or event via Zoom will be, in some fashion, part of your new culture when the pandemic is over.”

Rabbi Zev Silber, spiritual leader of Beth David Synagogue, wrote that he was completely unfamiliar with the technology before institutions had to close. “Before the pandemic hit I had never heard of Zoom!” he said. “When someone mentioned that perhaps I can do things on Zoom, I didn’t know what she was talking about. Then my kids told me that they were teaching on Zoom and that the grandchildren were having classes via Zoom, so I checked it out.”

Using the new technology was not as difficult as he expected. “Not being very computer savvy, I spent a short amount of time looking [online] at the information on line and thought that I’d give it a try, and I surprised myself that I was able to use it,” he noted. “I know that I do not how to take advantage of all that it offers, but I mastered the basics quite easily and found it friendly. Not familiar with other platforms, I would not venture to talk about Zoom’s strengths and weaknesses nor compare it to others.”

He is grateful the Zoom allows him to communicate with his congregants. “What I feel comfortable in saying is that each time I give a class on Zoom or participate in a meeting, I thank God for the wisdom He gave us that has allowed us to create the technology to have a way to communicate with others, even while we must remain physically isolated and distant,”he added. “I can’t imagine how difficult life would be if we didn’t have this ability and had to remain totally isolated from friends, family and others.”

While Silber realizes how important virtual communication is during this time, he believes it cannot replace coming together in person. “Isolation is necessary to save lives, and we are fortunate to have ways to make it bearable and preserve much of our mental health during this difficult time, and be able to save even more lives!” he said. “Baruch Hashem! Yet, there is no comparison between communication via Zoom and actual face to face, and the personal touch that real life provides. The services, the classes, the meetings, while productive and effective, are all missing much that is necessary for human interaction and I look forward to those resuming in a safe way.”

Rachel Coker, immediate past president of Temple Concord and the chairwoman of The Reporter Editorial Committee, has used virtual meeting places for professional and personal events, for example, synagogue board meetings and the bat mitzvah of her daughter, Charlotte. She sees the advantages and disadvantages in using virtual meetings rooms. “As a volunteer and leader in the local Jewish community, Zoom has been essential for things like board meetings,” she wrote. “It’s not ideal, particularly for people with hearing impairments, but it’s better than the phone, I think.”

She noted that Temple Concord has been using Zoom for its Friday night services since New York State restricted gatherings. “We’ve had some technical hiccups along the way, but I think we’ve developed a combination of slides, prayers and, recently, a cantorial soloist – that provides an acceptable worship experience,” she wrote. “It is missing the warmth of greeting friends, hearing about their week, sharing a snack at the oneg and so forth. Of course, I do long for those things, still.”

She was very pleased, though, with her daughter’s virtual bat mitzvah. “Zoom enabled friends and relatives all over the world (literally!) to join us for my daughter’s bat mitzvah in May,”she noted. “That’s definitely my most significant Zoom experience! The day was wonderful, even though it was nothing like we had planned back in the pre-pandemic days. We’re lucky to have Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell leading us at this challenging point. She was very flexible and worked with us so that at least our immediate family could be in the sanctuary for the service.
One advantage was having people who couldn’t travel to Binghamton be able to view and participate in the event.

“We were pleased to have people participate in the service remotely who couldn’t travel to Binghamton safely,” she added. “Other guests wouldn’t have been able to come from faraway places, including London and Nairobi, so the technology actually brought us together at a time that we wouldn’t have expected it to be possible. My daughter felt good about the day and I was so glad it retained its significance and spiritual meaning for her and for so many people who participated.”

Coker noted that “the plus sides of Zoom include the feeling that you’re ‘seeing’ the other participants and that you’re at least sort of in a room together. It’s not a terrible way to deliver or to watch a presentation, for example. The negatives include worrying about technology (are we on mute? are they on mute? did we advance the slides at the right time?) vs. focusing on content (the prayer or the message).”

While she noted the advantages of using Zoom during the pandemic, she also mentioned that she still misses meeting with people in person. “In general, I’m grateful for the technology that has helped to stitch our community together at a time of extreme crisis,” she wrote. “I work full time and I do sometimes suffer from a bit of ‘Zoom fatigue.’ After a day of meetings held via videoconferencing, it can be difficult to summon the energy and enthusiasm for another meeting in the evening. I now try to limit the number of nights with Zoom commitments in any given week.”