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Going Back to In-Person Synagogue Services

            I’m on the Ritual Committee at my synagogue and we were tasked with deciding whether or not (but really when) to go back to Friday night services in person. The re-opening committee (a group with health and building expertise, brought together by Covid) gave us the go ahead, saying that we could safely have one hundred people in the sanctuary – as long as they are masked and socially-distanced. Our job was to decide whether to take them up on the offer, and if so, how to manage the transition, especially whether to do a hybrid service or not.

We’ve had in-person Bar and Bat Mitzvah services all along, adapting to changing protocols as necessary, with limited in-person guests and a lot of Zooming and masks and social distancing and temperature taking. They even started to have food trucks outside of the synagogue, to allow for some kind of celebration. But most of our congregational events have been on Zoom for the past year. We had a few hybrid beach services last summer, but the Zoom side of those services was not very good. And while the hybrid synagogue school classes have been acceptable, they haven’t really been successful.

But now, with so many congregants vaccinated, and planning for High Holiday services in September underway, it seemed like the right time to consider in-person Friday night services, for those who would want them.

“I’m ready!”

            (By the way, I had my second vaccine shot a few weeks ago and survived; there was that one day when I felt like I was on a creaky rowboat in the middle of a thunderstorm, but the feeling passed. Sort of.)

“Ugh. I’m gonna vomit.”

We decided immediately that, if we returned in person, we would have to do a hybrid service, including interactions on Zoom, because we couldn’t go back to a one way/streaming style for online services, with a single camera catching the service from a distance and no chance for online folks to participate in discussions. Over the past year of zoomed services, congregants who wouldn’t usually be able to get to the synagogue on a Friday night, because they were out of town or not feeling well or not up to driving at night, have been able to attend by Zoom and feel like full members of the community. We’ve had members who were wintering in Puerto Rico or Vermont, or living full-time in New York City or Albany zooming in on a regular basis and participating in ways that used to be impossible. We couldn’t go back to what we used to do and leave those members out.

            The problem is, in order to do this right, we are going to need better technology – like overhead microphones to capture the in-person audience singing and speaking, and more cameras placed around the sanctuary, and someone to keep track of the tech, and…it’s a lot.


            Given the difficulties involved in hybrid services, and the fact that we still can’t have an Oneg (coffee and cake and schmoozing in the social hall) after services, and we’ll still have to wear masks and social distance in the sanctuary, and we may not even be allowed to sing indoors, it’s hard to get excited about returning to in person services again. And going in person will mean leaving the dogs at home, and actually having to get dressed, and drive. These are definite downsides. I get tired by eight o’clock at night and just want to sit around in my pajamas and watch TV, not get dressed up and drive and worry about how my hair looks from the back. And spending most of the service on mute means I can try out new harmonies without feeling self-conscious that someone will hear me and object, and I can turn to Mom and make snide comments about whatever I’m seeing on screen, as long as I cover my mouth to avoid the lip readers. But, there’s something special about getting to see people in person, and I feel an obligation to at least try to make it work.

“People are over-rated.”

And yet, chances are high that people will be impatient and obnoxious, out of frustration with the inevitable glitches, and online folks may unmute themselves in the middle of the service to tell us that they can’t hear what’s going on, or to complain that they are being neglected. And the in-person folks may get angry about all of the pauses, and having to repeat themselves. We are not a quiet, what-will-be-will-be sort of congregation, so the complaints will be plentiful. And a lot of the stay-at-home people still haven’t figured out zoom etiquette, so we will have big screens in the sanctuary full of people’s foreheads or ceilings, and I will definitely get seasick from the constantly moving iPhones.

            I don’t really want to go back yet, honestly, but I feel like I should. I can’t donate thousands of dollars to a fund drive to pay for new technology, but I can sacrifice a few hours to be a Guinea pig and help figure out how to make the hybrid services work a little better. And I miss being in an actual space with other people, instead of just a virtual one. But, the singing part really is a deal breaker for me. If we can’t sing in person I’d much rather be on Zoom. Progress be damned.

            But, despite all of that, we decided to go ahead with the experiment, even with the costs and complications involved, even though I will miss being able to turn off the computer and instantly be at home, without having to make awkward small talk or try to signal Mom across the social hall that I really want to go home, even though she is in the middle of a fascinating discussion of how best to protect her plants from the insect hordes. She has a tendency to “misunderstand” my signals, or ignore them entirely, when a conversation really interests her.

            I’m not sure I’m optimistic about how this will turn out, but I am determined to try. And we’ll see how it goes. It might be terrible, but it could also be the first step on the road back to normal. Whatever that might be.

“We have no idea.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

75 responses »

  1. Interesting transitions…

  2. You had me at pajamas and snide comments, but I guess you really do have to get back to….whatever ‘normal’ turns out to be. Isn’t Zoom great, though, for both the out-of-towners and the homebound? Good luck.

  3. I sure hope it all works out for the best. The sooner things get back to normal, the better off we’ll all be.

  4. Best of luck. I hope it will be a success.

  5. We are having a lot of these conversations too. It is definitely a challenge to balance needs of people exhausted by Zoom longing for in-person, along with the needs of the out-of-town/homebound who have been able to attend because services are remote. Not to mention the practical logistics.

  6. Rachel, you’ve done an excellent job of reminding everyone of unexpected advantages that have been realized for places of worship and also workplaces that are going to be hard to give up. It’ll be interesting to see if, in the long run, people are willing to introduce hybrid models on somewhat of a permanent basis. Zoom and similar setups have big drawbacks, but they also allow people to participate who couldn’t otherwise.

  7. It’s amazing how the pandemic has caused us to become creative in ways we had never foreseen. My congregation is planning to do hybrid services once we’re back to in-person. Our on-line services have accommodated regular visitors from sister congregations that aren’t streaming. This has helped those folks be a part of something they would have missed out on otherwise.

  8. You’ve certainly captured both sides of the issue, which my Rotary club is also experiencing right now. We tried a return to in-person meetings in November. The Zoom experience for those at home was awful at first but had begun to improve slightly before we shut down after just three weeks (our president was hospitalized with Covid pneumonia). Now we’re trying again, and much of what you say is still true: it’s going to require a layout for better technology than two laptops to achieve an experience that is satisfactory for those attending virtually, and we’re already on shaky ground financially as a result of having to cancel our annual fundraiser two years running. Attendance via Zoom has been pathetic, and the turnout for in-person meetings hasn’t been encouraging, either.

  9. Hope you’re happy with whatever outcome there is!

  10. I hope when you feel comfortable, you will enjoy returning in person. I’ve been attending church for the last six weeks and have enjoyed the fellowship with other believers.

  11. I hope it goes well for you. We went through those transitions as well. We wear masks when we sing. But being together with fellow believers makes all the difference. Zooming is not the same. It felt so good to be in church again.

  12. It’s a bit like being between a rock and a hard place. Both have their pros and cons.

  13. I love the creeky rowing boat analogy – that’s how I felt for about a day. Almost like a “40 years older simulator” 🙂

  14. Jess@thebookofjess

    I’ve been away from the WordPress community for a while now, it was nice to watch up with your posts.
    Best of luck! I hope everything turns out well.
    Take care. 💛

  15. Good luck! I hope it goes well for you. Things are getting better!

  16. I work at a cancer support center and zoom has been a wonderful way for people who have compromised immune systems to participate in support groups and other programs. We have a lot of people who have been vaccinated and want to return in person, but we will always have a segment of people who will be immuno-compromised. Zoom has opened a door for them to participate in ways they could not pre-pandemic. How to offer hybrid services is a question we are facing (and hoping someone else figures out so we can just adopt what works elsewhere). I hope you have success (and are willing to share what works).

  17. We all seem to have gotten complacent in enjoying the idea of pajamas all day, being clean without needing to be ‘polished’, even the opportunity to be more genuinely authentic with our words, knowing others can’t hear them. Now, after we’ve seemingly gotten used to life in this way, we get the opportunity to go back to how it was before – dressing for whatever occasion, making sure we’re ‘polished’ enough to be seen in public, learning to put a filter on letting our thoughts leave our mouths.

    Having said that, I applaud those who are willing to test going back into the water again, and I’m not surprised that you have chosen to work for the good of your church community to bring it about. I understand the part about perhaps not being allowed to sing, because music, for me, says things I sometimes have trouble saying on my own.

    I wish you the best of luck, without too many frustrations, and I wish you to be able to find the good in the outcome!

  18. I hope you get over the ill effects of your 2nd shot.
    Ironically the Day my Dad and I were to have our first vaccine shot we were both Diagnosed with Covid. So the family is still reecovering from getting covid.
    I wish you the best and hope for a Great outcome.

  19. Thank you for making me smile this morning! I love how this is a serious subject, but yet you helped bring some humor back to our everyday lives.

  20. Hi Rachel. Our church went back to limited in-person services a few weeks ago, while keeping the zoom portion. My husband has spent most of his free time over the past year (and some late ights) editing and putting together all the parts of the services, and he is still doing some of the same. So, hiring someone (he does it for free) or finding a congregant who has those skills and is willing to do it may be what your synagogue may need to do.

    As for your concerns about Zoom, when setting up the meeting you can turn the video off for the participants. That means they will be able to see what’s going on at the synagogue, but no one will be able to see them. You can also click the box to mute participants upon entry, and only the host can unmute them. Then, when the meeting starts, the host can click on a pop-up at the bottom, then click on “mute participants, as well as the box that says to not allow them to unmute themselves. These are changes Zoom has made over the last year.

    Good luck!

  21. Watching the service with my dogs totally wins out over in-person services – because dogs! And sleeping in, and comfortable clothes, and not fixing the hair. If you can’t schooled over coffee, I’d stay home!

  22. Just curious: did you have a Passover seder this year? My family didn’t.

  23. All of us by now are familiar w/ the shortcomings of technology, grateful though we may be for it. My prayer for you is that your congregation members will be so overjoyed at the opportunity once again to worship together that they will overlook any glitches. By the way, Happy Mother’s Day, Rachel. In my book, being a “dog mom” counts! ❤ ❤ ❤

  24. We started back with services now that nearly all of the restrictions have been lifted. There are still some restrictions but these are fairly minor and we can live with them. Zoom in this area is not great and for us the Broadband is not so good, but it is relaxing watching the little blue circle go round and round and round and……………

  25. Seeing live people is so nice — even with the craziness!! 🙂

  26. I kinda see where you’re coming from. I think I’d feel like you, wavering between being at home in comfort and safety and going out again. However, where I live, very few people have taken covid seriously, so not much has changed.

    • Wow! My congregation has taken it very seriously, partly because New York as a whole has, and partly because we have a lot of vulnerable, elderly congregants. We even have an infectious disease expert on stand-by to help with all of our decision-making.

      • My kids and I have, and some of the people I work with have. There are people here and there, scattered around who have taken it seriously, but generally most people want to do what they want, without a care for anyone else.

      • That’s scary, because this is all about being able to rely on your neighbor to help protect you. I’ve been very lucky. Stay well!

      • Thx! Yeah, we’ve been double masking and hand sanitizing, washing, etc for months.

  27. I’m thinking of all the portrayals i’ve seen in movies and tv shows, of old people complaining about stuff – kvetching, if i may be so bold. It’s provided some great laughs over the years. You are starring in a new sitcom and all the grumpy grousers are your costars (bit players, mind you). I’d tune in. 😉

    Srsly though, sounds stressful. You take care of yourself.

  28. Just go with your heart, Rachel. Be comfortable with your personal honest decision– even if it means “Zoom.” Be safe and have a wonderful day.

  29. You have outlined the advantages and the problems of both in person and online services very well. Perhaps you should be employed as a ‘sensible 3rd eye’ for tech companies?

    I totally get your wish to be able to sing. My friend and I were once late for mass as schoolgirls, and missed the ‘Gloria’ that was sung quite early in the service. We looked at each other and both agreed – not worth going in then. The guilt was only mild.

  30. With the president lifting restrictions and mask wearing yesterday. It will soon services as usual. We too have not been back to our church services yet. Now we have not excuse!!

  31. If you keep in mind the future of your congregation, I’d keep in mind that Zoom technology would most likely be embraced by a younger crowd.

  32. For people who enjoy social interactions, there is nothing like in-person meetings. We have lost so much by following the conflicting mandates given to us over the past year and a half. I’m fortunate to live in Florida, where we have a governor endowed with common sense.

    More has been lost by the lack of human interaction than by COVID-19.

  33. You may need to limit the number of people who attend in person for a long while, so you may need to propose a way of making this effective and fair eg monthly attendance slots instead of every week so everyone has the opportunity to attend if they want, rather than being turned away at the door on the night.


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