Services are Zoom-ing along at area congregations

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Almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, most congregations in the greater Rhode Island area are still holding services on Zoom or a similar streaming platform – and they report mixed results.

Jewish Rhode Island received nine responses to a questionnaire recently sent to congregations statewide and in nearby Massachusetts asking about their experiences with virtual services. Here is a summary of what they reported:

While several congregations, including Temple Habonim, in Barrington, began streaming Shabbat services in the months and years before the pandemic, every responding congregation now streams them – with the exception of Orthodox congregations, which cannot do so because it would violate halakhah (although they offer pre-Shabbat sessions and education programs via Zoom).

“During the pandemic, they [streamed services] have been essential in maintaining a sense of connection and community,” said Rabbi Mark Elber of Temple Beth El, in Fall River. 

For the most part, the survey found that online participation was about the same, or sometimes a bit higher, than at pre-pandemic in-person services. Reported participation in online Shabbat services ranged from 10 to 40 worshippers. Over subsequent days, another 30 to 200 members viewed the recorded service.

“If you count total viewers on Shabbat, more people are able to attend online than in person,” said Habonim’s Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman.

Streaming the services also had an unanticipated perk: “We have congregants who no longer live in the area or had not returned able to participate,” said Rabbi Elber.

But the improved attendance was not universal. At Congregation Agudas Achim, in Attleboro, Rabbi Alex Weissman said he has seen a significant decline in participation, even among those who regularly attended in-person services.

“For some of our members, it has become less accessible – whether it’s because they don’t use technology on Shabbat or don’t have internet access, some people come significantly less to services than they otherwise would,” Rabbi Weissman wrote.

For the High Holy Days services, participation ranged from 50 to 250 people, with the exception of Providence’s Temple Beth-El, which reported that about 1,000 people had tuned in.

Some congregations found the switch to online services didn’t make much of a difference. For example, Abigail Anthony, president of the board of Temple Shalom, in Middletown, said, “Just like in-person services, participation and attendance makes the experience meaningful for everyone. I actually don’t see much difference between our in-person and Zoom challenges. Judaism is a communal experience.”

But at other congregations, Zoom services were seen as a pale imitation of the real thing.

“It’s like the difference between hearing music on an album or a CD versus hearing it live at a concert hall or an arena,” Rabbi Voss-Altman said. “There’s something magical about experiencing worship with other people, especially people you know.”

The other downside of online communal prayer is glitches in the technology.

“There were major issues with our provider for the High Holy Days. We definitely run into sound, video issues occasionally,” said Judy Moseley, executive director of Temple Beth-El, in Providence.

But Moseley said Beth-El has since solved many of those problems by upgrading its equipment. “It gets better and better,” she said.

Some, including Habonim, reported that they have hired technology experts to run their streaming services.

Not many of the congregations that responded offered any in-person services, although a few, such as Congregation Beth Sholom, in Providence, and Touro Synagogue, in Newport, offered outdoor services that strictly followed COVID-19 safety rules. No positive cases were reported after the services. 

Finally, when asked if virtual services would continue after the pandemic, everyone responding said most likely – at least some of the time.

“I imagine that we’ll use Zoom during inclement weather (snow), or if we have members who specifically request it,” said Temple Shalom’s Anthony.

The congregations that answered the questionnaire were: Temple Beth El (Fall River); Congregation Agudas Achim (Attleboro); Temple Beth-El (Providence); Temple Shalom (Middletown); Temple Habonim (Barrington); Congregation Beth Sholom (Providence); Touro Synagogue (Newport); Congregation Sons and Daughters of Ruth (Block Island); and United Brothers Synagogue (Bristol).

SETH CHITWOOD is a freelance writer from Barrington and the creative director of the production company Angelwood Pictures. Reach him at www.sethchitwood.com.