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September 2020

"Going Virtual: The Challenges of a Rabbi During Covid-19 As We Look to the New Year and Beyond"
An Interview With Rabbi Ken Aronowitz


Q.  What has it been like for you personally to conduct services and study groups online versus in person?

A.  Well, I want to be sure to distinguish between the personal and the organizational.  So, to be honest, on a personal level, it’s a whole different experience.  All my career as a cantor and spiritual leader and now rabbi, I’ve led “call and response” text readings – where I read a portion and then the congregation reads a portion.  I’ve heard a sanctuary of people singing along with me.  I’ve delivered sermons and experienced some kind of immediate energetic feedback from the room.  I’ve heard the laughter and the tears.  Now there are only a few people in the sanctuary, along with the camera and equipment. 

Q.  How about on an organizational level?

A.  That’s been really interesting.  In many ways, it’s been a double-edged sword.  There are many people, who, for various reasons, and even though they may really want to, are unable to attend Friday night services.  I think that’s even more true with Tuesday morning’s Wisdom class and we’ve had 100 views for Saturday Torah study.  And we’re building up an archive so people can go back and study on their own time as well as joining in live.  We did a virtual shiva and had people from around the world join in.

Speaking of around the world, we’ve received several donations from around the globe without any type of solicitation.  Temple Emanu-El has formed a wonderful connection with Rabbi Rob Kvidt and the  Kauai Jewish community.  Rabbi Itchel from Chabad did a excellent talk story hour on the High Holy Days.  To be sure, the Internet offers connections that we couldn’t have had before.

Going forward, I think an important issue will be how to keep the virtual option going.  How can we have in-person gatherings which are also broadcast, thereby giving people a choice?  For example, we could rig a camera at the back of the sanctuary, but that may not offer a good view of the bimah.  Or we could move equipment closer to the bimah, which may be disruptive to those physically at Temple.

The bottom line is, I think the vast majority of us are really hungry to be together again, to hug, smile, laugh, talk, pray, sing as one ohana.  Being with one another creates a kind of energy that is greater than the sum of its parts.  At the same time, there will still be a need for some kind of outreach via the virtual world.  One thing I can say without question is that the broadcast of Temple events cannot exclusively involve our amazing Executive Director, Richard Field.  We need volunteers from our community to be trained in doing the broadcasts, which would be a tremendous mitzvah!

Q.  What are you seeing for Temple Emanu-El in the next few months?

A.  I’m focused on trying to make next 2 months as meaningful as possible.  For example, the week after Simcha Torah is the annual Temple meeting.  In the past, we liked to talk about vision, to frame our work in rather lofty terms.  Now I think the question is, what is important for Temple Emanu-El to offer our community?  This list would include what we are currently offering and other services that could be added.  And for every activity, we should be asking how we can do it more meaningfully.  It’s important to remember that Judaism is not a spectator sport.  A congregation is at its best when staff, lay leadership and members work together.  There is definitely no lack of tasks including the eventual return of our Shabbat Oneg.  For a long time we have needed rotating groups of volunteers to order, shop, prepare, set up, and clean up each Friday night.  Though it seems mundane, I am certain that, by doing it well, those who participate will feel the joy and holiness of Shabbat inspiring others to get involved. 

Q.  Finally, have you found anything positive in the pandemic?

A.  First off, it’s great to have more time to spend with my wife and kids.  But also, I’ve more time to study and reflect.  I’ve been able to immerse self like never before in the study of Jewish text and ritual, and I’ve learned – and am learning – a lot.  At the same time, I hate that’s it’s come at the cost it has.

The High Holidays are meant to remind everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, to reflect on what is truly important in our lives, which is typically not the size of our car, home or bank account.  During this time, we are each called upon to not only admit our mistakes, but to let go of those missteps, those behaviors.  That’s when we know we’re actually doing teshuvah, returning to the right path.

In fact, we hope to offer do-it-yourself Taslich, where we can physically cast away our sins.  The pandemic has taught us how incredibly valuable it is to be adaptable.  And Judaism is nothing if not adaptable.  When you think about our history, we HAVE to be.

Fri, January 22 2021 9 Sh'vat 5781