A Blizzard Shabbat in the Eye of the Storm

by Rabbi Jeffrey Brown

Our temple, in the southern Westchester County suburbs of New York City, first began addressing the implications of the forecasted blizzard (Winter Storm Nemo) during the day on Thursday, February 7th. Our weekend schedule was to have included 8pm Erev Shabbat services on Friday night, a Shabbat morning service and b’naei mitzvah (which was to include our entire board and Communal Worship Committee, in conjunction with a lunch and study discussion we were hoping to have later on Saturday). We also had a program scheduled to take place in a congregant’s home Saturday evening, plus religious school and adult ed programming scheduled for Sunday morning.

Throughout the week, our clergy were in touch with Saturday’s b’nai mitzvah family multiple times via phone and email, mostly to provide moral and pastoral support as they navigated the obvious anxiety that comes along with a major winter storm. In this case, half of their extended family was coming from Canada, so there were the natural concerns about logistics and safety of travel, etc. Although we never seriously considered rescheduling the service, we did make a point of keeping our lines of communication open with them.

By the time Friday morning rolled around, we had effectively decided that it was not reasonable or prudent to go forward withour evening service. We did not want to run any sort of risk that our service would somehow be putting service-attendees in harm’s way in terms of either getting to our building or returning home. (We wound up cancelling the Saturday afternoon and evening programs, but by Sunday morning, we were “back to normal.”)

As that decision-making process played out, I happened to be catching up on a round of email that had been initiated by my colleague Rabbi Jonathan Blake at nearby Westchester Reform Temple. Rabbi Blake had reached out to a number of area colleagues to see what everyone was doing about holding services over the weekend. Another colleague, Rabbi Daniel Gropper of Community Synagogue in Rye, wrote in to the group to indicate that his synagogue considering doing a service by conference call. As soon as I read his email, I knew that that was a great idea for our community and hoped he would forgive me if I “borrowed” it for our purposes.

I am a big fan of freeconferencecall.com and had used their service for a variety of purposes during my previous tenure as an associate rabbi in California. I brought my knowledge of this valuable, free tool with me to Scarsdale, where I began in July, and have also used it here – though admittedly, this was the first time I had ever considered using it for worship.

After getting the idea from Rabbi Gropper, I reached out to our cantor, Chanin Becker, and we agreed we would seek to facilitate an approximately 30-minute Shabbat experience. We did not explicitly think of this as a service, both out of concern for the length of the call and because we knew that those calling in would not have access to a prayerbook. (In a subsequent email exchange with Rabbi Gropper, I learned that he and his team thoughtfully took the time to put together a PDF version of the siddur, which they emailed to congregants to follow along during their service. What a great idea!)

For us, the less formal structure of a so-called “Shabbat experience” was a fantastic success. We welcomed everyone, with Cantor Becker making a point of inviting each person to announce themselves at the start of the call and later acknowledging them by name. We sang, shared words of Torah connected to that week’s Torah portion, blessed candles and wine, and had a chance to schmooze together at the beginning and end of the call. (Callers were muted while the “service” was going on.)

Our community had no history of using technology in this way, and so we set a modest goal for ourselves. We hoped we would be have a minyan of 10 households on the call. Instead, we had 30! (Freeconferencecall.com automatically generates a summary email of the callers’ info after the call is over.) Beyond the technology and the content, we realized that what people were hungering for on Friday night (and what they hunger for perhaps every Shabbat) is the desire to feel an authentic sense of shared connection with a larger community. And though we were not together in person, I have heard from many on the call that the sense of connection for them was palpable. Even as a blizzard raged on outside, our simple conference call provided them with a sense of warmth and the presence of friends old and new.

We are already beginning conversations about how we can utilize technology more effectively so that we can create a similar sense of community (even if there isn’t a dangerous blizzard going on). One of the things I would like to study further is what the best technology platform for this kind of gathering could be, given the limited budget that we and so many other temples have for this sort of thing. With less than eight hours’ notice, we put together the conference call, as well as a chat room space that was open concurrently for those who were inclined to share their thoughts as the service progressed. It turns out that the free chat service I had chosen (but not fully “vetted!”) limited the number of participants that could be in the room. On top of that, two minutes into the “service,” my wireless Internet went down at home, which prevented me from being able to join the chat room. I had been looking forward to sharing reflections there about the music that we were singing, etc. The lesson: Technology doesn’t always cooperate!

Finally, a last reflection about what made the call run so smoothly and successfully. Mostly so that we could ensure that Cantor Becker was able to get to the synagogue the next morning for our Shabbat morning service, she decided to spend the night with me and my family at our home, and so we were able to lead the call in person together. Those that have co-led worship with someone else in the past know how important non-verbal cues are to insure that the worship runs smoothly and meaningfully. In retrospect, I think that we probably would not have been able to pull off what we did if she and I had not been in the same room together. That made all of the difference in the world, and would be something I would work to insure in the future if we decide to do this again.

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown is the spiritual leader of Scarsdale Synagogue – Temples Tremont and Emanu-El in Scarsdale, N.Y. In partnership with the Senior Staff and Lay Leadership of his previous congregation, he was the winner of three 2011 URJ Techie Prizes. You can visit his website at www.bit.ly/rabbibrown.