Attendance at B’nai Israel’s services zooms up

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For Woonsocket’s struggling Congregation B’nai Israel, online services have turned into somewhat of a phenomenon, with attendance at Shabbat services up 10-fold – at least.

That means, instead of having difficulty even getting a minyan on Shabbat, people from all over the country are tuning in to Cantor Jeff Cornblatt’s Saturday morning services.

“Sometimes we get 20 or 30 views during services [on Facebook], but more people find it later on Saturday, and even more during the week,” said CBI board member Peter Tedeschi. “Typically, it’s about 100, but as low as 45 and as high as 250.”

But why, with all the online Conservative services out there, are people finding their way to this cash-strapped shul whose total production values amounts to a laptop?

Cornblatt thinks that’s actually part of the draw: the services might have been glitchy way back in the beginning, in March 2020, but they were never glitzy.

“People are longing for contact,” he said. “The homeliness, the hamishness of the way we do the services.”

Tedeschi also credits Cornblatt with excellent instincts about online viewers.

“People just can’t sit in front of a screen for hours and hours,” Tedeschi said, and Cornblatt has shortened his service accordingly, to an hour and 15 or 20 minutes, while still hitting all the essentials.

And then there is Cornblatt’s rich and trained tenor-baritone, his vast knowledge, and his folksy, welcoming and inclusive style.

“Jeff always chooses melodies that everyone can sing along with. He doesn’t put his ego or his voice first,” Tedeschi said.

Oddly enough, it’s Cornblatt’s penchant for “bad jokes” that really seems to resonate.

“We have picked up a lot of new people who have no particular connection to our shul. The thing they tell me they like, strangely enough, is my bad jokes … and they find it to be a nice service,” Cornblatt says.

This is confirmed by comments on the Facebook posts, such as thank-yous and “You’re an excellent teacher,” as well as an array of clapping emojis, emoji hearts and praying hands.

Tedeschi said the boost in viewership began when the congregation started posting the Shabbat services on its Facebook page, @shalom.cbi, in addition to the invitation-only Zooms. First, he said, a few CBI members switched from the Zoom to Facebook, and they were soon followed by former members. Then the services began to get a few “shares,” and soon people with no connection to CBI started tuning in.

The metrics are continuing to trend up, and for now the congregation has no plans for ending the online services. And in-person services are not possible anyway – pandemic or not – because the synagogue’s fire-alert system is in need of an expensive repair.

Reflecting on the past two years, Cornblatt said, “I privately was afraid it would be the end of the synagogue when we had to go online. Many of our congregants are quite elderly, and I thought they wouldn’t want to fool around with this crazy tech. But, to my surprise, it has blossomed.”

Cornblatt said he invites any and all viewers to get in touch with him, and some have. 

“There are people who come from the area but no longer live here, and this [online service] gave them the opportunity to go to services in their home synagogue. They say they expected to do it once, but now say, ‘I find myself going to shul every week,’ ” he said.

Tedeschi is proud of CBI’s resilience during the pandemic, pointing to the Shabbat services but also to special online events like a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony attended by Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and U.S. Sen. David Cicilline, and an entertaining Purim-spiel.

“Anything that stems from the pandemic is ultimately tragic,” he said. “But I think we have certainly made the best of a terrible situation in the world.”

CYNTHIA BENJAMIN is a board member of Congregation B’nai Israel and the copy editor for Jewish Rhode Island.