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Jewish congregations adapt to new reality of online services

As most Christians transition to online services, traditional Jewish congregations also are adjusting to the new reality.

Although many have livestreamed Shabbat services for years — mostly for the benefit of shut-ins — few have ever conducted services without an in-person minyan, a quorum of 10 Jews necessary to recite certain prayers, according to a story from Religion News Service. The very idea of a virtual service is foreign to many Jews and to some, prohibited.

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Jewish congregations and Shabbat

The coronavirus pandemic has presented particular challenges to Jewish congregations, especially on Shabbat, a time when many Jews — and especially Orthodox Jews — avoid using electronic devices between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday.

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On Shabbat, a majority of Orthodox synagogues across the world will go dark. Shabbat is a time of rest and renewal, and these Jews will keep the prohibition on electrical devices and appliances. Conservative, Reform and other less traditional Jewish streams are more flexible. This week, many Jewish leaders have raced to provide online services and resources to celebrate Shabbat and ease the social isolation of those sheltering at home.

“The whole Jewish community has pivoted on a dime,” said Cyd Weissman, vice president of innovation and impact for Reconstructing Judaism, a small liberal stream of Judaism. “All the norms, expectations and plans we’ve had have been turned upside down. We’re in a topsy-turvy world.”

Many congregations are providing livestreamed services from empty sanctuaries or from the comfort of rabbis’ homes. Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of New York’s Lab/Shul said his congregation has used livestreaming for more than five years and said members appreciate it.

“Is it as good as in person? Perhaps not,” he said. “But it’s what we’ve got. It’s so meaningful for people who don’t have access to a synagogue and now that’s all of us.”

Jewish responses at a time of pandemic will likely be wide-ranging, said Brad Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi and the president of CLAL, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a New York-based think tank and consulting organization committed to religious pluralism.