Shabbat online? Conservative synagogues get OK, but some were already doing it

May 26, 2020

For Orthodox synagogues, it was an easy choice: Pandemic or no, a Shabbat service cannot be streamed online. For many liberal synagogues, it was similarly easy: Meet the needs of the moment, and start streaming Shabbat services.

But for Conservative synagogues, it was a matter for serious deliberation: To stream or not to stream?

On May 13, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards provided official guidance: Despite longstanding prohibitions against using electricity and computers on Shabbat and major Jewish holidays, prayer services could now be streamed on those days.

However, of the six Conservative synagogues J. spoke with about this matter, five had already begun streaming their Shabbat services before the teshuvah (legal decision) was issued. The sixth does not plan on streaming services.

The six rabbis’ varying approaches illustrate the complexity and seemingly contradictory nature of Conservative Judaism’s approach to Jewish law today.

Rabbi Jaymee Alpert of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga is a member of the CJLS who was part of the 19-3 vote in favor of the option to stream (there were also three abstentions).

Alpert said Beth David has been streaming services “since almost the very beginning” of shelter in place on March 17. “It was really important to me to provide a sense of community as best I could,” she said.

The teshuvah, authored by Rabbi Joshua Heller of Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs, Georgia, does not give carte blanche to stream by whatever means are most convenient. Rather, the 34-page document includes many stipulations, such as: Everything must be pre-arranged and scheduled before Shabbat begins, the streamed content may not be recorded and, if interaction with the technology facilitating the stream is absolutely necessary, it should be done by a non-Jew.

However, in Conservative halachah (Jewish law), the senior rabbi of any individual synagogue is the mara d’atra, an Aramaic term (literally, master of the house) that means they are the ultimate halachic authority in their community. In other words, each congregational rabbi may choose to follow or not follow CJLS decisions.

“What I appreciate about this teshuvah is that it is giving rabbis and congregations an opportunity to adhere as closely to halachah on Shabbat as possible,” Alpert said. “For those of us who take a little bit more of a lenient view of Shabbat, we take as much care as we can.”

It was already part of her practice to turn on a microphone before services. “So streaming wasn’t a big leap for us in terms of how we deal with technology [at Beth David],” Alpert said.

“Having Shabbat morning services together [online] has been really meaningful. People like to see each other’s faces and wish each other Shabbat Shalom, and have an approximation of what we have in person in the sanctuary.”

A teshuvah to allow streaming of Shabbat services had already been in consideration by the committee for about a year, Alpert said. But the exigencies of the pandemic demanded some revisions and an expedited process.

At Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City and Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, leaders had been discussing the streaming of services before the pandemic began. Kol Shofar, for example, had set up a working group to discuss streaming services, primarily as an issue of accessibility for people who can’t physically attend services.

“So when Covid hit, we were poised to just accelerate the process,” said Rabbi Susan Leider of Kol Shofar, which started streaming services on March 21.

Two days earlier, the working group met virtually. “We wanted to evaluate where we [were at that] point,” she said. It looked as if stay-at-home order could last a while, “and that has ramifications for the community.”

Leider mentioned the halachic category sha’at hadechak, essentially a moment of crisis, during which more lenient rules can be instituted. But she has begun to wonder about things. “When you have a period of duress that extends, what does that mean? How do you define this period?”

A Peninsula Sinai, the decision to stream had already been made before shelter in place. “We were in the process of ordering the equipment when the pandemic began. So we made the decision to start doing it before the ruling,” said Rabbi Corey Helfand.

Addressing a common misunderstanding about what the members of the CJLS did, Helfand said, “It’s not that they’re deciding things after the fact, but they’re offering additional halachic framework for what people are already doing.

“This teshuvah does a good job of keeping it as stringent as possible, while also making it possible to meet the needs of the moment.”

Peninsula Sinai began streaming on Purim (when Shabbat-like restrictions such as use of electricity are not in effect) and went ahead with streaming Shabbat services shortly after. Helfand said that they are being as strict about it as possible. Everything is set up in advance of Shabbat, for example, but Helfand still has to click the mouse a couple of times to get things started, he said.

Rabbi Mark Bloom of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland was frank about the matter: “We’re doing the whole thing, including Saturday morning, streaming everything, and we’re not completely following the Conservative [teshuvah],” he said.

For him, it was a matter of balancing contradictory priorities. “Basically, halachah is important to me, but so is keeping a community together. So I weighed two separate values: the strict observance of Shabbat and keeping the community together. Shabbat services is how we convene as a community,” Bloom said.

“I doubt I’m the only one doing it the way I’m doing it, not following all their requirements,” he said, referring to the teshuvah’s minutiae — setting up the computer to start streaming at a certain time, etc. “Who is going to do that? I would love to do it the way they suggest, but it’s just not reasonable right now.”

Rabbi David Booth of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto is a member of the CJLS who opted to abstain from the May 13 vote, largely because he doesn’t think synagogues will be able to follow the letter of the law.

“I didn’t want to vote no because it’s a really thoughtful paper with a good deal of depth to it for the immediate crisis,” he said. “But I couldn’t vote yes because it’s very complex to do what [the teshuvah] said, to try to actually have a stream be Shabbat-appropriate. I wonder whether communities are going to be able to or willing to do that. It seems to me that during the crisis, there’s reason to put some extra permissiveness into it, but when the crisis is over, we should really reevaluate it.”

Booth, Kol Emeth’s senior rabbi, is not leading or participating in streamed services on Shabbat; however, the congregation’s other rabbi, Rabbi Sarah Graff, is leading online services on Shabbat. “I wanted to give Rabbi Graff the leeway to function that way. It’s nice for us as a community to hold a little pluralism,” Booth said.

At Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, Rabbi Dan Ain has no plans to stream Shabbat services.

At 4 p.m. every Friday, dozens of his congregants get together online before Shabbat. There is a d’var Torah and guests, and Ain does a blessing for the sick and reads a list of yahrzeits. The guests have been interesting — Louie Kemp recently talked about the religious journey of his old friend, Bob Dylan, for example — and some people stick around to shmooze over kiddush.

But there is no service.

“It’s not Kabbalat Shabbat. I’m not even attempting [that],” Ain said. “What I’ve been telling people is this: The medium is the message, and the medium of Judaism is the minyan. It’s very hard to transmit a prayer experience.”

Due to popular demand, Beth Sholom has been streaming weekday morning minyans. “I have been surprised how meaningful the virtual minyans have been,” he said.

In the end, there are no easy answers for Ain and his colleagues.

“I’m at a loss for my elders and predecessors,” he said. “There’s no literature on this, no Jewish source to turn to here. We’re hard pressed.”